Are Courts Punitive Spaces? ‘Understanding Courts’ Event at HMP Wandsworth

How does the design of courts shape the experiences of those who use them? Is it important to physically access courts to feel like justice is being done? Can courts be ‘designed better’ to strengthen the legitimacy of the judicial process?

On Wednesday 11th January I organised a workshop to try and answer these questions. This was the final event in the set of three Impact Acceleration workshops, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and held within HMP Wandsworth, a category B and C prison in London holding around 1600 inmates. As has been discussed elsewhere, these workshops are concerned with connecting the work I have done on the nature of court space with current UK policy on the reorganisation of the court estate. The  UK Government is currently looking to consolidate court activity in a smaller range of courts, while increasing the use of technology to widen access to trial processes.

The event included ten inmates of Wandsworth, together with twenty delegates from outside: judges, academics, NGO officials, contractors and representatives from HM Courts and Tribunals. The main aims of the event were:

  1. To provide a forum to draw out different perspectives on the experience of courts
  2. To reflect on how these perspectives, reflect different positions within the trial process, as defendant, member of the public gallery, on the judicial bench or providing security.
  3. To explore the different spaces of trial justice, from the architecture of court rooms, to the organisation of holding cells, waiting areas or public galleries.
  4. To offer suggestions for the future organisation of court spaces, weighing up the opportunities of new technologies and temporary ‘ad hoc’ courts.

The day was divided between framing presentations, small-group discussions and plenary feedback. I will use future posts to expand on the key findings, but some brief observations from the discussions:

  1. There was a great deal of discussion concerning the ‘audience’ for court design, where courts were presented as spaces designed for the use by judges and lawyers, and less as sites for the comfort or intelligibility of defendants. Some felt that the court design — and the associated processes of remand — were punitive and undermined a sense of innocence until proven guilty.
  2. The role of the dock, and its securitisation, was a key point of discussion. We were lucky enough to have representation from Serco, who defended the handcuffing of defendants as a reasonable measure to avoid harm to staff. But others were concerned that the security of the dock, the hand/body cuffing of prisoners shaped the perception of juries as to guilt or innocence (see Meredith Rossner‘s work on the role of the dock).
  3. There was much discussion about the dual role of ‘gravitas’ and tradition (eg dress and comportment of judiciary). Some felt this was a necessary measure to demonstrate the separation of court activities from wider social relationships, while others saw these as exclusionary practices that served to alienate the defendant from their own judicial process.

I am looking forward to writing more on this facsinating as time allows (between the obligations for the start of term here in Cambridge). I want to give thanks to Rachel Whitlock and Ian Bickers at Wandsworth, to Amy Ludlow and Ruth Armstrong in Criminology in Cambridge for all their help, to all the participants who attended and to the ESRC and University of Cambridge for funding this initiative.

Alex Jeffrey, January 2017

Picture below: a group photo of non-Wandsworth participants.

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