Thinking About Designing Courthouses for Access to Justice

Some of us have long urged courthouses be designed physically with a view to access to justice.  We might find some inspiration from a recent video feature on Politico, on the “Post-Ferguson Police Station,”   I would suggest watching the video starting at 5 min 20 secs, for the visuals that show the ideas.

For a courthouse, the core ideas would be design the spaces and human flow to encourage access to the information that would enable people to assert their rights, to connect them with people who can help them, to reassure that they would not be treated as the cashbox, and to ensure that staff were kept cognizant of the human consequences of their actions.

Here is a crazy idea, that at least gets one thinking about the implications of design, set the staff and judicial entryways so they walk past the cells, reminding them that incarceration decisions are not about theory but about humanity. (I’d want to test the consequences, it might do more harm than good.)  You’d need to find a way to explain to those held that they were not being exhibited as objects — maybe it would be safer to just put big photos on the entry hall of the insides of prisons.

More generally, Module 3 of the Court Leadership and Self-Representation package is all about courthouse design for access.

What I would really like to see is an architecturalal design competition for an access-friendly courthouse.  We surely spend billions a year on building courthouses, so this would be very appealing to architects.  (See., e.g. Greenfield Massachusetts Trial Court, Project Cost$60 million;  Boston Federal Court, $170 million, completed 1999).

Once build, those courts can end up structurng the patterns of interaction for a century or so.  Lets get them right.



About richardzorza

I am deeply involved in access to justice and the patient voice movement.
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5 Responses to Thinking About Designing Courthouses for Access to Justice

  1. Pingback: Thinking About Designing Courthouses for Access to Justice | Alberta's Reforming the Family Justice System Initiative Literature Related to RFJS Recommendations

  2. Pingback: Thinking About Courthouse Design: Access to Justice — Oregon Legal Research Blog

  3. As a court system employee who works on access to justice issues, I have given courthouse design a significant amount of thought. Most courthouses are not set-up to meet the needs of the unrepresented litigants who visit them. However, sometimes it is just a matter of shifting existing resources and space to improve access. This was done in our Bronx Family Court to redefine the Court Help Center so that visiting litigants enter on the first floor to access their records, receive legal and procedural assistance from staff or meet with a volunteer lawyer, use document assembly terminals, file papers and even see a Judge. One stop shopping. See Richard Zorza’s August 2013 blog: With technological advances, there is no reason that courts can’t integrate their services to afford easier navigation around the courthouse. Why send a litigant from floor to floor to retrieve records, file papers and pay a cashier?

    I wholeheartedly agree with Randy Chapman’s comment that the placement of the law library (or Help Center) in an accessible location greatly impacts usage. I once visited a courthouse in California where a desk was set-up in the main lobby and every unrepresented litigant was triaged as they entered the building. I can only imagine how much this improves access to justice and court efficiency! Today’s court buildings need to be designed with Help Centers in mind, as well as space for childcare centers and office space for the numerous new staff positions that need to be added to court systems’ payroll. As I recently expressed at the LSC TIG conference, “Wormhole to the Future” workshop (https://goo.go/haVNEJ), the traditional staffing of Judges, Court Attorneys, Clerks and Court Officers alone does not meet the needs of today’s litigants. Court systems need to hire social workers to get at the root of the legal problem; attorney-technologists to make document assembly programs; plain language specialists to vet all written court materials; graphic artists to produce courthouse signage and promotional materials; UX designers to improve customer satisfaction and website design; social media and communication experts; web programmers; and of course; every court system needs access to justice program personnel.

  4. Speaking of courthouse design, Harris County (Houston) moved their law library from the top floor of the courthouse to the first floor as you enter the building. Public access has skyrocketed. Now, the volunteer legal aid program has moved to adjoining office space to offer self-help clinics. Smart design by smart people. Kudos to all who shared that vision.

    • richardzorza says:

      What a wonderful idea. A great challenge to other law libraries to do the same. A great example of how re-purposed law libraries can gain political support. Do they have stats on usage? Photos?

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