Understand the significance of trial spaces and put users first – policy forum on the future of the UK Court System

On the 29th and 30th September 2016 I held a Policy Forum at Emmanuel College funded by an ESRC Impact Acceleration Award, where representatives from the judiciary, HM Courts and Tribunal Service, NGOs and academia came together to debate the implications of the re-organisation of the UK Court System. As trials are focused on fewer court buildings and digital technologies are enrolled by court users to facilitate access to justice, the debate focused on the role of court spaces in shaping judicial outcomes, the significance of courts as symbols of justice and the uneven adoption of technologies among court users.

Much of the discussion focused on the micro-scale of the court space, its organisation and the potential for innovation. For example, Meredith Rossner (LSE) presented recent research into the role of the dock in shaping and jury’s perception of guilt or innocence, where the use of a dock (as opposed to the defendant sitting at a table next to their legal support) led to a statistical increase in guilty verdicts. Referring to this work, Judge Nicolas Coleman talked through the importance of the appropriate atmosphere for the achievement of justice – the significance of solemnity – drawing attention to the comportment of the judiciary but also the appropriate arrangement of trial spaces.  Alexandra Marks, lawyer and board member of the legal reform NGO JUSTICE, emphasised the need for more flexible spaces to perform trials, including ad hoc or temporary courts alongside more formal judicial spaces. Particular attention was placed by Marks on the possibility of local justice centres in UK towns and cities where technologically mediated and face-to-face legal advice could be accessed by the public.

This focus on the question of accessibility points to the other central strand to the forum’s discussions: the accessibility of trial processes. This question was raised in a presentation by Jessica Jacobson (Institute of Criminal Policy Research)  who had undertaken a study of the comprehension and actions of defendants in crown and youth courts in the UK. Jacobson emphasised the role of trial process in creating a rigid distinction between the performance of law and the defendants as audience. In this position defendants did not feel part of the process, exacerbated by the reduction in court staff, the rapid speed of trial processing and the challenge of using new digital interfaces. Representatives from Cambridge Citizens Advice supported these findings, suggesting that many of the individuals seen by their service struggle with literacy and numeracy and simply cannot navigate the existing court system, they are left feeling alienated and disempowered. In turn, CA emphasised that increased use of technology would need to be partnered by an increased use of human assistance to help individuals navigate new online systems.

A representative of HM Courts and Tribunal Service gave a vital account of the current policy context within which the reform of the court estate is taking place. This emphasised both the inefficiency of the current trials process and the need to continue to make cuts to the existing budget for the judicial system. This was viewed as an opportunity for reform, where all court users are customers and greater consideration was required of their perspectives and needs. Reflecting the potential challenges emerging from Jacobsen’s talk, the HMCTS representative emphasised the need for three aspirations for the UK court system:  people need to be heard; people need to be treated with respect, and people need to understand what is going on. Returning to the opening discussions of the workshop, architect Ann Griffin argued that this focus on the customer would require a parallel interest in the design of court spaces, to consider how courts can be suitable public spaces and avoiding some of the challenges and restrictions that over-securitisation can bring.

The event presented two clear findings. First, the organisation and nature of trial spaces shapes the attitudes of all participants (judiciary, jury, defendants, witnesses and public) to the trial process. Understanding the differentiated interests of these multiple court users will be important to the redevelopment of courts. Flexible spaces provide a clear opportunity to widen access to justice, while retaining certain design elements that convey the solemnity of court proceedings. Second, accessibility to trial processes cannot be resolved through technology alone, and even where technological fixes can yield efficiencies, these require human support to help people use these to their full potential.

I am very grateful to all those who participated, it was a very stimulating set of discussions and people gave their time generously. The workshop is the part of a series of events directed at considering the role of the geography of courts in shaping perceptions of justice. This work emerges from a long running interest in the role of court architecture and the experience of court space in establishing the legitimacy of the judicial process, initially in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but increasingly in a UK context.

Alex Jeffrey, October 2016



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