As a court planner, one of the most common questions I have been asked since the pandemic is, “What best practices are being implemented in courthouse projects in light of the hybrid concepts that have emerged during the pandemic?” The notion of a hybrid courthouse combines traditional court features with technology and modern design principles to improve court efficiency and accessibility.
The challenge of serving the public and managing court functions during the pandemic placed an emphasis on quickly incorporating technology solutions. But do these technologies impact space needs? Or is the notion of a smaller technology-infused hybrid courthouse a mirage? Something that is a mere curiosity as courts drift back into traditional operating roles.
Despite the questions that I have been asked in nearly every court over the last three years, I find the latter to be true. But is it true because courts resist change and want to keep their space, or because courts are inherently a people-first institution needing proper accommodations?
The pandemic posed a real challenge for courts. How do we keep delivering justice while minimizing the amount of people who physically come to the courthouse? Two main technologies emerged.
First, videoconferencing was established in many courts and applied to various types of court proceedings that were deemed appropriate for remote participation. Second, online services were expanded for the public to file cases, pay fines, and conduct court-related business.
All this emphasis on technology and innovation created an expectation, especially by building owners, that the courts do not need as much space. I find that most of my conversations with owner organizations start this way. With all the technologies that have been funded and the remote proceedings, can the courts operate in smaller spaces? The answer, of course, is, “It depends.”
It depends on the culture of the court, the caseload, the actual technologies that have been implemented, and the ability of the court to maintain and expand the technologies. It is unfair to expect the courts to operate in a different fashion just because they implemented technologies during the pandemic to help them survive. The courts have real reasons to keep their doors open to the public and to hold in-person proceedings to provide justice properly.
For this reason, we often find ourselves helping owners understand the courts and vice versa. As advice for the industry, the backroom expectations should give way to dialogue. We usually always find common ground. This could include allowing the court to operate in a more traditional manner while saving space in targeted areas like reducing hardcopy filings and other forms of paper storage needs.
The technologies have pushed the courts and every other industry into a more hybrid working environment. Remote participation in proceedings does happen much more frequently. Technologies like electronic filing and case management are making courts more efficient and convenient for the public.
However, courthouses are not private technology firms where the employees will largely telework. They are civic brick-and-mortar facilities built around the mission of providing public service.
Examples of Courthouse Hybrid Features
Here are some examples of hybrid features we have seen when planning courthouses.
Hybrid Hearing Rooms: some courthouses have constructed hybrid hearing rooms to promote the use of videoconferencing when the full space of a courtroom is not needed. At times, these hearing rooms are constructed as an addition to a full complement of courtrooms. At other times, some courtrooms are replaced with hearing rooms, and the judges share spaces based on the type of proceeding.
Digital Case Management: integrated case management systems that enable e-filing, case tracking, processing, online scheduling, and document management. Such systems are convenient for the public and attorneys and add efficiency to the court by reducing paper and tracking case processing.
“Smart Courtrooms”: courtrooms equipped with audio and video recording capabilities, evidence presentation technologies, and real-time transcript services. These technologies promote efficiency in the courtroom and in developing proceeding transcripts. Videoconferencing capabilities enable remote participation if the circumstance allows.
Interactive Kiosks and Online Portals: these systems enable self-service check-ins, finding court information, and paying fines or fees. This serves as a convenience for the public to reach court services from home via online portals and in the building lobby or clerk’s office via interactive kiosks. Also, kiosks or electronic displays in the lobby often direct visitors to where they need to go and provide information on courtroom proceeding schedules.
Flexible and Multi-Purpose Spaces: we have seen courtrooms with flexible features that can be expanded to provide more space in the well area or for spectator seating. Shared conference spaces with flexible furniture that can be arranged for either meetings or training. Trial jury deliberation rooms that double as judges' or staff conference rooms. Lobby areas that can be rearranged for public functions. And jury assembly rooms that can double as courtrooms.
Legal Aid and Information Centers: information centers or kiosks providing resources on legal aid services, self-help materials, and community resources. These areas often include terminals where the public can fill out forms, perform research, or connect to service providers.
Advanced Security Systems: integrating surveillance cameras, access control, and emergency alert systems can promote security and safety in the courthouse. Facial recognition and AI features can enable CCTV to be more proactive in protecting courthouses. Gunshot technologies can also be integrated into courthouse security systems to lockdown facilities when a gun is fired and to send out emergency alerts to court staff and 911 centers.
Online Jury Selection and Orientation: these online systems can help prospective jurors register, receive notifications, and access orientation/education materials. They are more convenient for the public, save time for court participants, and can potentially reduce the size of jury assembly areas.
Wellness Areas: includes spaces where the staff and or public can recharge, such as a quiet bench in front of a window with a view. A mother’s room (lactation room), gym, and green spaces promote wellness in the courthouse.
Many other features can be incorporated into a hybrid courthouse design. I have focused on the technologies enhancing services, promoting efficiency, and saving space or foot traffic in the courthouse.
The hybrid courthouse could also promote telework for staff. Instead of having dedicated offices and workstations, some staff could share “jump stations” and collaboration spaces. We have seen this work in some clerk’s offices but more so in probation and parole spaces where there is considerable work outside the courthouse. We have also seen this in prosecutor and public defender offices, though not as common.
Hybrid concepts also touch upon sustainability and transparency in courthouse design. These two concepts have been guiding courthouse design over the past two decades by promoting a more open courthouse design with lasting and/or sustainable materials.
The notion of a technology-enabled courthouse emerged during the pandemic. Born of necessity, it has led to the possibility of promoting efficiency in court operations and potentially saving space. However, it is not uncommon for a building owner organization to expect the courts to be able to save 30% or more on space needs. In my opinion, this is not a realistic goal.
A more realistic expectation is a savings of 10 to 15%. This would include a court that embraces hybrid concepts by:
- Downsizing every fifth courtroom to a videoconference hearing room and asking judges to share spaces based on the type of proceeding.
- Designing collegial chambers areas so that judges’ offices are not directly adjacent to courtrooms and consolidating the judges’ staff into a more space-efficient open work area.
- Reducing the need for paper storage through electronic filing and case management.
- Reducing the size of public waiting areas in court and related departments by implementing online services and kiosks.
- Sharing conferencing facilities between court components.
The changes mentioned above are considerable when compared to the traditional model of the courthouse. I believe the courts are headed toward more space-conscious and efficient operations. However, the courts have always been a people-first institution, and I do not see that changing.
Technologies are developing to help courts operate more efficiently, but not to replace the public’s need for courthouse space. The hybrid courthouse is a facility that uses technology to its fullest to promote efficient operations. It is not a magical concept to greatly reduce courthouse space.
Hybrid courthouses are not a mirage; they include every courthouse struggling to implement technology and make processes more efficient. The only mirage is the expectation that courthouses can greatly reduce space. Technology can make the courts more efficient but not replace the courtroom or the public’s need for in-person justice.