Justice by design

On a suburban street parallel to the main street further up the hill, the low-slung, heritage listed, Art Moderne Neighbourhood Justice Centre is the unobtrusive neighbour to a lively band venue, a primary school, an iconic public housing estate, and a major Arts hub. The NJC blends into its surroundings, neither advertising its presence nor attempting to conceal itself.  It’s the bricks and mortar epitome of community justice.

While a proportion of visitors come of their own volition, most attend the NJC because the criminal justice systems demands it. Regardless, all are met with welcoming, respectful, safe and above all, therapeutically supportive environment, qualities that are fundamental to how we operate as both the village square and the community court.  

If you’ve read about our security system (External link), you’ll get a sense of one critical way we pull off this balancing act, but underpinning it all are the architectural features of the building, the tricks of the light that enhance the community's stewardship of the place.  

Add value to the community

The NJC is housed in a former technical education centre built circa 1941 that operated until around the 1980s. The building had been derelict until the NJC opened in 2007.

The choice of venue was based on several pertinent requirements: the NJC needed to enter the community in a way that added value to it and removing the criminogenic risks a derelict building posed did just that. It also needed to be easily accessible, and most clients live within walking distance and there is ample public transport available.

It also needed to be a building that didn’t command a presence over the community. Courts, quite obviously, are indictive of crime, so to avoid tarnishing a community as a crime hotspot by virtue of its presence, breathing new life into the former boot and shoe making college −a place many older residents remember fondly−enabled justice to step lightly into community life.

The design of the internal features came together through community workshops that included residents and local services. And as the NJC was conceived as a pilot, this also gave the justice sector the opportunity to test many established principles of court design. 

And one established court design principle that was tested was the idea of where the courtroom should sit within the building. 

Court in the corner

The Centre’s courtroom occupies a corner of the first floor, ostensibly out of sight except for those who need to be in it. The rationales for ‘hiding’ the court are equal parts practical and philosophical.

First, people who use the Centre for non-court related activities typically use the ground floor rooms, so there is no disruption to the court and visitors do not feel like they are in a courthouse.

It also means clients of the court are not ‘on display’ as it were, nor do they congregate on the street outside the building (an open-air deck on the court floor provides fresh air and repose).

Most importantly, tucking the court away ensures the NJC is a community justice centre, not a courthouse—Neighbourhood Justice Centre, not the Collingwood Court. The court is simply one function of a much broader attention to the justice-based needs that happen well beyond procedural justice.

Courtroom design

The courtroom is designed to improve participation in the justice process, and much of this is down to light, sound and sightlines.

Large windows bathe the room in natural light and offer views over rooftops and the bustling streets below, and sounds of life filter in.

If drawing attention to windows sounds like pointing out the obvious it’s because many courtrooms, particularly older ones, are at centre of buildings. These windowless rooms are hermetically sealed from the worlds outside, the stories of which they judge within.

In comparison, the NJC’s courtroom brings the community in, and in doing so subtly implies what can lost and what can be gained by the decisions made, and commitments taken, a few metres away from 'real life'.  It also reminds legal actors that justice is not removed from the world outside. Law and order is not an abstraction when you can hear school bells in the distance.

In addition, the therapeutic benefits of natural light are well known, and sunlight goes a long way to reducing stress. And when people before the court are calmer, they stand a better chance of participating more fully in their matter.

Bench and bar table

In many mainstream courts, the person before the court sits behind their legal representative, often nearly out of sight of the bench (Magistrate’s table or desk, if you will) which means it’s easier to feel removed from the action.

However, as other specialist courts, the NJC’s bench is low and defendants/offenders sit at the bar table with their lawyer, in line police prosecutors, and front and centre of their matter.  (The dock is still used when the person is held in custody).

The eye-to-eye line of sight between magistrate and the person before the court facilitates dialogue between the two and helps clients to focus. It also acknowledges that there is a person before the court, not an abstraction of facts argued through a legal representative.  

Seeing justice at work

Most mainstream courts are sequestered away behind heavy timber doors. As such, entering a courtroom, particularly for the uninitiated, is akin to diving into a pool wearing a blindfold—unnerving.

The doors of our court are glass. This pays homage to the important adage that justice must not simply be done, but seen to be done, and makes entering court less stressful.

All offices doors have windows through which staff are visible to the public.

Shared space

Many justice centres are  designed along complex circulation pathways, with staff using separate entrances, stairwells, and lifts. Again, the NJC subverts this, with staff and centre users sharing the same pathways.

In addition, most visitors are free to traverse all floors, and excluding offices, can use rooms without requiring strict permission. 

The principle of sharing as much public space as possible is about rubbing shoulders with the people in your neighbourhood and breaking down the barriers between ‘us’ the justice system and ‘them’ the client. Or indeed, ‘us’ the wrong-doer, and them, ‘the law’.

Quiet rooms

The only centre users who have designated entrances and rooms are people in custody and victim-survivors in family violence matters.

Victims-survivors, overwhelmingly women, use ‘quiet rooms’ and the Affected Family Member (AFM) room. Accessible only by staff, these rooms separate applicants from respondents, and give women a place to meet their lawyers, complete paperwork, and wait for court. Several rooms include sound-proof play areas, so children are in mum's sight but out of earshot of adult conversations.

While applicants and staff value these rooms, it is worth reflecting that it is the applicant’s freedom of movement, not the respondent's, that’s curtailed. Respondent are free to move about the centre, and leave the building to, for example, top up a parking metre or buy lunch. Applicants require assistance to do these things. The Quiet Rooms—popular and practical—may be the best solution, but these issues should not be ignored, and courts may revisit this design feature in future. For now, the design feature works well.

Children at court

We are mindful that court is no place for children, and we encourage anyone attending court to find alternative arrangements for their little ones. That said, this isn’t always possible, so children have a playroom on the ground floor opposite the security team. The room is used by staff who have clients who attend with children, for supervised parental visits, and during community events.

Apart from keeping children occupied, the room adds a joyous splash of colour to the Centre, and notably the main playroom is one of the first things people see upon entering.

 

 

Artwork: HOPE WALK (Leeds), 2013 by Kate Just