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The Hybrid Court Model: Courtrooms vs Hearing Rooms

by Matt Hemphill / December 4, 2023

I have to acknowledge a struggle I have been dealing with for the last two years as a court planner. Will courts embrace the technologies that arose during the pandemic and reduce the size and number of courtrooms, or will they maintain the status quo?

The Hybrid Courtroom

Hybrid court proceedings - where some proceedings are performed with all parties in the courthouse, and others are performed with some or all parties participating remotely - emerged from how courts were forced to operate during the pandemic. 

There has been much discussion on the types of proceedings that can and cannot be conducted remotely. However, it seems logical that the technologies adopted during the pandemic will impact the design of proceeding spaces.

Working on recent courthouse projects, I find that implementing hybrid courthouse principles is easier said than done. While the hybrid court is an attractive goal, it is not achievable without a significant commitment from court leadership and the judges to embrace change and permanently implement new policies and procedures. 

In the last two years, I have been involved in nearly a dozen courthouse projects, and stakeholders for almost all of them eagerly discussed the notion of the hybrid courthouse model. However, only one court implemented hybrid concepts.

Courtrooms vs. Hearing Rooms

Although the hybrid courthouse involves much more than just teched-out courtrooms, I believe courtrooms are the key to a successful hybrid courthouse model. While one should have the right to an in-person trial, I mostly see remote technologies for non-trial proceedings, such as calendaring, status conferences, and first appearances. Often, these non-trial proceedings are being conducted in full-size courtrooms. So, this is the main issue: is a full-size courtroom needed for non-trial proceedings? I don’t believe they are.

Utilizing hearing rooms in lieu of courtrooms for some proceedings will not only reduce space needs but also allow for greater adaptability to changing circumstances, such as a pandemic, technology advancements, or changes in case types. The problem, as I see it, is convincing a court to take a chance on this relatively new concept in courthouse design.

Breaking Old Habits

I recently was part of an advisory group involved in a statewide planning effort to implement hybrid court planning principles in upcoming courthouse construction projects. While the discussions surrounding the use of hybrid courtrooms, Zoom rooms, and courthouse technology were fruitful, the effort ultimately stalled. This occurred due to the courts’ concerns about judges not having their own dedicated courtrooms sized for their respective court functions (e.g., superior, district, family and juvenile).  

In my opinion, the key to a successful hybrid courthouse design is rethinking the notion that every judge must be assigned a full-size courtroom. I readily acknowledge it is difficult to convince judges that operations will be improved by breaking from this traditional way of thinking. 

Many judges want a courtroom available for them as the need arises without the challenge of scheduling around other judges to secure a proceeding space. The one judge per full-size courtroom arrangement stresses efficiency and convenience over flexibility and adaptability. 

In my experience, since the pandemic, courts have established permanent policies to continue the practice of holding some non-trial proceedings remotely. It is not unusual for me to walk into a full-size courtroom where remote proceedings are held to find that the judge and a clerk are the only ones in the room and everyone else is participating via video or teleconference.  This leads to wasted courtroom space.

Remote proceedings typically do not require a large space, as attorneys and litigants participate remotely, and large gallery spaces and jury boxes are not required. This work can be accomplished easily in a hearing room - a smaller room equipped with state-of-the-art technology for remote (or partially remote) proceedings.  

If more hearing rooms were provided to accommodate these types of proceedings, a reduced quantity of full-size courtrooms could be designated for proceedings requiring courtroom amenities such as a jury box, witness stand, and spectator area.  

A true hybrid courthouse should contain a mix of full-size courtrooms and smaller hearing rooms - each equipped to accommodate remote proceedings and electronic evidence presentation systems - that are not assigned based on the judge but based on the type of proceeding needed.

This would require a change in scheduling philosophy for many courts and cooperation between court administration and judges. However, providing a mix of full-size courtrooms and hearing rooms certainly provides the most flexibility in proceeding spaces. It also frees up trial courtrooms to be used for their intended purpose.

Striking a Balance Between Courtrooms and Hearing Rooms

Unfortunately, there is no easy formula for determining the exact quantity of required courtrooms and hearing rooms. A thorough courtroom utilization analysis should be completed so the court can understand how often the courtrooms are actually being used and for what purposes. A utilization analysis can be a difficult endeavor because the court is often alarmed that courtrooms are not used as often as perceived. 

What is critical to learn from the analysis is how often courtrooms are used for each type of proceeding. This will help determine the right mix of courtrooms and hearing rooms. Finding the right mix is critically important to ensuring there will be adequate adjudication spaces available for judges to conduct proceedings as they arise - sometimes with short notice. 

There is rarely the need to provide a total quantity of courtrooms and hearing rooms that is more than the number of judges. Additionally, for medium to larger courthouses (six judges and up), there is often the opportunity to provide fewer courtrooms and hearing rooms than judges, as all judges typically do not hold proceedings simultaneously.

In a recent project I worked on, the court administration wanted to pursue the hybrid court model aggressively. After a thorough analysis, comprehensive discussions with all of the stakeholders, and the agreement of the chief justice, we were able to recommend three courtrooms and three hearing rooms for a courthouse that would ultimately house six judges -  three Superior Court judges, one District Court judge, and two magistrate judges.

Hearing Rooms Reduce Space Needs

The trade-off between courtroom and hearing room square footage should be carefully considered. Often, hearing rooms can deliver significant space savings without compromising functionality.  

For example, providing one hearing room in lieu of one courtroom can save approximately 1,350-1,550 net square feet (NSF).  A typical courtroom set contains 2,250-2,450 NSF (1600-1800 NSF for a standard trial courtroom, sound lock, two attorney conference rooms, and jury deliberation suite). A hearing room set contains approximately 900 NSF (650 NSF hearing room, sound lock, and two attorney conference rooms). 

If hearing rooms replace 30-50% of the courtrooms in a large courthouse, the space savings will be substantial.

The Elusive Hybrid Courthouse

The vision of the hybrid courthouse represents a significant shift in the traditional approach to court planning. Blending full-size courtrooms with smaller hearing rooms equipped for remote proceedings holds promise regarding cost reduction, increased flexibility, and “right-sizing” the space for court proceedings.

However, the journey toward realizing this vision is not without its challenges. The resistance to change, deeply rooted in the long-standing traditions of the judiciary, poses a formidable barrier. Overcoming the notion that every judge requires a full-size courtroom is a pivotal step in embracing the hybrid courthouse model. 

The key to success lies in fostering a shift in mindset and encouraging the judiciary to prioritize functionality over tradition. By embracing this approach, the judiciary can adapt to the demands of the modern era, creating courthouses that are not only functional and cost-effective but also capable of meeting the diverse and changing needs of the justice system.

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Tags: Courthouse Planning

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Matt Hemphill

Matt Hemphill

During Matt’s career, he has been involved in many successful projects and facility types, such as courthouses, land ports of entry, hospitals, outpatient medical office buildings, assisted living facilities, and general office space for large corporations. Matt enjoys music and running, and likes to cook.