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Top Space Functionality Concerns in Courthouses

by Pam Kendall / April 29, 2024

We often find challenges in courthouse planning due to a lack of space for courtrooms, offices, waiting areas, and support services. Inefficient layout designs can confuse visitors, attorneys, and staff, making it challenging to navigate the courthouse. This can lead to overcrowding, long wait times, and difficulties conducting proceedings, resulting in disruptions and delays.

Space functionality should be at the top of the list when planning courthouse needs. To what extent does your space support the number and operations of judges and staff while maintaining proper adjacencies, layout, accessibility, and circulation? If you’re unsure how to answer that question, you’ve come to the right place.

Fentress has seen many space functionality issues firsthand, having assessed more than 1,200 court facilities throughout the U.S. Identifying all possible functionality pitfalls can be overwhelming. Let’s focus on the most common issues we’ve encountered in our more than 30 years of experience as court planners.

Location, Location, Location

Real estate experts say that the three most important factors in determining the desirability of a property are "location, location, location." The same is true about the operational success of a courthouse and where the court components are located in relation to one another. With one out of every three courthouses containing courtrooms and/or clerks’ offices deemed inappropriately located, I’d say that’s a “problem, problem, problem.”

Courtroom Location

Courtrooms must be appropriately located relative to judges’ chambers, holding cells, public access, and jury deliberation facilities. Judges, jurors, prisoners, and the public all need access to the courtroom, but access must also be secure and/or restricted where necessary. Here are four courtroom location “rules of thumb” that can be helpful:

  • Centralized Location: Courtrooms are often centrally located within the courthouse to provide easy access for judges, attorneys, parties, and the public. This central location can help streamline the flow of people and facilitate efficient operations.
  • Proximity to Chambers: Courtrooms are typically located near judges' chambers to allow judges easy and restricted access to courtrooms. This proximity can facilitate communication between judges and their staff and help ensure that court proceedings run smoothly.
  • Accessibility: Courtrooms should be easily accessible to individuals with disabilities. They should be located on accessible routes and equipped with features such as ramps and lifts to ensure that everyone can participate.
  • Security: Criminal courtrooms should have access to secure circulation for detainees.  For the safety of everyone, the only place the public, restricted, and secure circulation should meet is in the courtroom. All types of courtrooms should be behind security screening at the main entrance. Security measures such as metal detectors and bag scanners are needed to maintain a safe environment.

We have worked in numerous courthouses where detainees, judges, jurors, and the public mix in circulation pathways. This situation is common and always problematic. But our most unique courtroom had an entrance directly from the outside. It was a beautiful historic courtroom but completely lacked security measures beyond the Sheriff’s Office personnel stationed in it.

This situation can only be topped by a courthouse that held court on the lawn under a huge oak tree. The judge would sit in a chair at a small table, and folding chairs were brought out for the participants, jurors, and attorneys. All this occurred on the facility's front lawn, in plain view of the sidewalk, road, and other buildings.

In many ways, it is a shame that we have lost this simplicity in court operations, but courtroom participants all need measures in place to ensure their safety.

Clerk’s Office Location

The clerk’s office must be appropriately located and accessible to courtrooms and chambers. Four considerations to keep in mind are:

  • Accessibility: The clerk's office should be accessible to the public, attorneys, judges, and other courthouse staff. It should be located near the courthouse's main entrance and easily identified through proper signage and design features.
  • Proximity to Courtrooms: The clerk's office should be close to the courtrooms so that staff can efficiently process court documents, filings, payments, and requests. This proximity helps reduce the time needed to retrieve files, manage evidence, and communicate with court personnel during proceedings.
  • Privacy: The clerk's office should provide some privacy for conducting sensitive transactions, such as filing confidential documents or discussing case details with attorneys.
  • Security: The clerk’s office should be behind the security screening in the courthouse. It should have a public entrance and a restricted staffing section of the office to keep files and records secure.

On rare occasions when a courthouse is extremely overcrowded, the clerk’s office is moved away from the courthouse into a separate facility. This is always challenging when managing files and evidence, and it severs a critical connection between the public and the court.

Courtroom Layout

Courtrooms need to be designed with sightlines, well areas, spectator seating, and circulation in mind so that the required number of court personnel, attorneys, litigants, jurors, and spectators can all be accommodated. All relevant parties need to be able to hear and see the proceedings because the courtroom layout not only helps to impart the seriousness of the proceedings but also impacts how well courtrooms operate.

For example, a courtroom needs sufficient space in the well area for all parties to function optimally. The amount of space varies by the type of court proceeding, such as criminal trials requiring jury boxes or many juvenile proceedings having at least three parties in the well area at one time. Crowded well areas can lead to defendants being closer to and therefore intimidating witnesses. It also takes more effort to hold confidential conversations at attorneys' tables or for the judge to keep conversations private when attorneys are requested to approach the bench.

Based on our analysis, more than 45% of all courthouses contain courtrooms that have problematic layouts. Examples include the judge’s bench not having a clear view of the entire courtroom or the views for jury members being obstructed by a column (you’d be surprised how many columns we’ve encountered in the middle of courtrooms).

Functionality Concerns Courtroom with Columns Obstructing Sightlines

In either of these instances, the layout fails to promote clear communication, visibility, and accessibility for all participants, which can ultimately result in a courtroom that is inefficient and unsafe.

Final Thoughts

I’ve always loved the saying, “Work smarter, not harder.” Courthouses are one of the largest and most publicly viewed examples of tax dollars hard at work. But wouldn’t it be better if those tax dollars also worked smarter?  

Working smarter includes courtrooms and clerks’ offices being appropriately located in courthouses. It also includes courtrooms with layouts that aid and do not detract from the administration of justice.

Correcting these functional problems will greatly benefit the public, improve security, and increase the effectiveness of court operations.

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Tags: Courthouse Planning

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Pam Kendall

Pam Kendall

Pam Kendall is a statistical data analyst and web developer who likes to spend her free time playing guitar, hanging out with friends, and traveling.