Litigation Uncategorized

Good design and law courts

(Prof. T. Oommen)

Court buildings are mostly monumental in character and designed in modern or traditional styles. Famous examples are the Supreme Court at New Delhi in the traditional style and the High Court at Chandigarh, which is modern. Despite the difference in architectural styles, both are built on a monumental scale. The association with the institution of law and its importance as one of the pillars of civilized society drive architects to conceive the exterior in awe inspiring form. Even the interior spaces of these buildings such as the entrance lobbies, the halls and the court rooms match the exterior in monumentality to enhance the feeling of reverence that is thought to be appropriate.

Photo: The Punjab and Haryana High Court at Chandigarh, by robespiero.
Photo: The Punjab and Haryana High Court at Chandigarh, by robespiero.

Questions of style in court buildings are not entirely simple, but the proper organisation of interior spaces to make it functional, convenient and comfortable for users is most complex and likely to extract all the skills of an experienced architect.

There are generally five categories of users for a court building: (1) the visiting public (for purposes of litigation or for attending court sessions, (2) court officials, (3) attorneys and their aids, (4) judges and (5) detainees or prisoners and their security guards (according to the type and level of the courts).

Great care and skill in planning is required to segregate the circulation of these different categories of users so that they do not unnecessarily come in contact with each other unless required. This is of special importance when terror and security are such a major concern. Good design can reduce the massive commotion and associated security threats in the court precincts and can efficiently keep high profile defendants and their lawyers secure while entering the court and attending proceedings.
For example, the circulation routes of the visiting public, whether their purpose of visit is to transact official business with the court or a casual one to the public gallery of a court hall, must be planned and segregated in such a way that the public do not casually come across judges and their office rooms. Again, the category of detainees and criminals, who are brought to appear in the court, has to be amply protected and segregated from the public areas. Any contact of this category with the circulation of other ones will obviously be highly inappropriate and dangerous. At the same time, detainees and criminals may require secure facilities for consulting their attorneys in private. Thus all the five categories and their sub categories have to be provided with appropriate segregation in circulation and controlled meeting points for the discharge of court functions.

The close involvement of judges and administrators of the court building for determining these requirements of segregation and meeting points is absolutely essential to the design process.

The detailed needs and requirements for each category of court users tend to be so special and different that planning the building becomes quite complex.  A common approach to the problem of segregation, separation of movement routes and workspaces and security needs is grade separation by levels. For example, spaces for the detainees and prisoners can be provided in the basement floor. They would be escorted down in to the basement from closed vehicles and be brought to the courtroom directly from there. The spaces for guards and policemen would also be provided in the basement and so would consultation facilities with attorneys. Facilities for judges may be provided at the highest level with separate entries – perhaps separate lifts and exits and direct routes of entry to the judges podium in the courtrooms.

In such a set up, courtrooms would be at the middle level. The public may be provided access at the ground level due to their large numbers and for their ease of use. Further, each of the categories would require their necessary service spaces like toilets or mechanical equipment rooms.  A meticulous listing of conveniences and services for each category in an inventory list, and cross checking them out in the final scheme will be necessary for good results.
There can be no great disagreement that courthouses need to be monumental, impressive and overpowering like the institution of law. However, there can be much debate about the specific architectural style of court buildings among legal professionals, the public and especially among architects themselves.

Proponents for traditional styles would argue that each society has to reach back to great moments in its history and evoke memory and pride in its unique culture thus creating a continuum with its ancient history. Modernists would argue that the technology of the 21st century and the needs of the building should play the primary role in determining the form, that architecture must reflect “the spirit of the age” – our technological and societal progress rather than tradition. There can be no conclusive architectural argument for either position but like the debate between tradition and modernity it is perhaps the dialectic between the two that is most important in creating innovative designs.

Many of the above arguments were made after Independence when the decision to construct the capitol complex of Chandigarh in the most avant-garde version of modern architecture was made. The massive, sculptural High Court was and still is the most famous building in this architecturally world famous project. For many including Prime Minister Nehru, it represented India’s release from the burden of tradition, but one of his remarks on the subject is particularly interesting.   “It hits you on the head and makes you think. You may squirm at the impact, but it has made you think and imbibe new ideas, and the one thing which India requires in many fields is being hit on the head so that it may think”.

The spirit of his remark seems to be to not lose sight of what is most important in that particular project – its symbolism and impact. It begs us the questions of what message our courthouse buildings convey today. The answer is fairly obvious. Too many of them are decrepit and crumbling old facilities that do not address security issues, efficiency or ease of use, let alone instill any sort of sense of civic pride and reverence for the institution. It is therefore imperative that architectural design must address not only the creation of impressive monumental form, but also equally impressive planning in the organization of spaces to create efficient, functional courthouses.

Good design must not be a luxury or an afterthought, but an indispensable starting point in creating respect for the institution of law and a belief in the efficiency of our legal system.