I was recently working on a space needs assessment for a new courthouse. The team had really gelled and we had made great progress on determining the space requirements and collaborating on the design. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Needless to say, the brakes were quickly put on the project and we had to regroup. This has given me time to consider the impact the pandemic will have on the future of courthouse planning.
The courthouse team I was working with needed to consider the impact the virus would have on court operations (and, in turn, what changes the court would need to make in response to the virus). As I listened to the team members talk about the changes that were in store, I noticed that the discussion centered around three main concerns:
- How to reduce the number of staff in the building while still providing essential services
- How to reduce the number of other individuals entering the courthouse
- How hearings and proceedings could continue to be held
It turned out that the solution to these challenges rested with the court technology programs that have slowly been implemented in the court system over the last 10 years. Technology solutions have been increasingly suggested by court planners as a way to either eliminate the need for additional space or to provide expansion space within an existing courthouse. Unfortunately, many courts have been reluctant to implement these solutions - many citing either budget constraints due to the investment in technology infrastructure, or a general unwillingness to transition the court to these new concepts.
I’m starting to believe that one of the silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic is that some of these technology solutions had to be adopted out of necessity and are now becoming more mainstream. Electronic filing and payments, remote work, and videoconference proceedings have been instrumental in helping courts operate during the pandemic. Not only are courts now better prepared to respond to emergency situations in the future, but I believe that ultimately the size of the modern courthouse can be reduced as a result. Let’s take a look at how this may be possible.
Electronic Filing and Payment
At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, courts had to find a way for people to file claims and make payments during a period of limited access to the courthouse. Most courts that relied upon the traditional walk-in customer service counter turned to electronic filing and payment systems. This limited the physical interaction between attorneys/visitors and court staff, and reduced the number of visitors to the courthouse overall. Electronic filing/payments save a tremendous amount of time and may turn into a long-term solution for courts well beyond this current health crisis.
From a space reduction standpoint, the most obvious benefit of electronic filing is the elimination of large file storage rooms. But electronic filing and payment systems also decrease the number of visitors to the courthouse. As a result, public areas that are typically sized for the maximum volume of foot traffic - areas such as the security screening area, queue spaces, waiting areas, and the public lobby - could potentially be downsized. Other features that must meet code requirements based on occupancy load – such as the number of fixtures in public restrooms, stair width, and quantity of public elevators – could also be adjusted to account for the reduced occupancy load.
To reduce the number of staff in the building during the crisis, courts have had to consider which functions can be done remotely. Telework solutions are somewhat dependent upon the implementation of processes like electronic filing and payment systems, but many courts have realized that much of their work can be done remotely. For example, case managers who typically assign cases, enter orders, and manage related paperwork can work remotely as long as they have access to the required documents and systems within a secure network.
Of course, certain critical functions need to be performed on site, but not everyone needs to be physically located in the courthouse at the same time. Staff could be organized into shifts so that when some are on site, others are working remotely. This could reduce the number of workstations by up to half. Additionally, the area required for support spaces - such as break areas, toilet rooms, and conference rooms - could be reduced.
Courts have also been forced to conduct some hearings and proceedings remotely. This trend could become permanent for some hearings, allowing the amount of foot traffic within the courthouse to be substantially reduced. The need for courtrooms and related spaces could also be substantially reduced.
For example, during the pandemic many courts have been conducting initial appearances (i.e., arraignments) via videoconferencing from the prison. This practice has gained traction over the last few years, but the pandemic has helped it become much more commonplace. If implemented on a permanent basis, this could have a tremendous impact on the size of the courthouse. Many courts that handle a large volume of arraignments require two or more courtrooms. If video arraignments become more routine, it could potentially lead to a reduction in the number of required courtrooms, and existing courtrooms could possibly be repurposed for other functions.
This would also eliminate the need for ancillary spaces such as holding cells, attorney conference rooms, and jury deliberation rooms. In local courthouses, the arraignment courtroom is typically the largest courtroom. A reduction of even one courtroom and ancillary spaces could result in a total space savings of close to 3,000 gross square feet.
The Architectural Silver Lining to the Pandemic
Although the COVID pandemic has led to many challenges and even losses, I believe the future of the courthouse will ultimately benefit from it. This crisis has forced the court to rethink how business can and should be conducted. It has forced the court to embrace court technologies that can truly benefit the public.
I have no doubt that there will continue to be some resistance to the implementation of technology in courthouses. It certainly represents a large culture shift, and there are hurdles to overcome. But courts can learn from one another and become resourceful in ways to implement technologies that help the court best serve the public. In the end, tapping into technology solutions will not only allow courthouses to adapt to emergency situations in the future, but this new approach could make a significant impact on the size, design, and function of the modern-day courthouse. Maybe it’s my architectural bent searching for the silver lining, but I’m excited to see what the future holds.