Community justice by design

A heritage listed Art Deco building spanning three floors, the Neighbourhood Justice Centre comprises a courtroom, meeting areas, offices, custody cells, and a café.

Functioning as court, treatment centre, and village square, this unobtrusive building is neighbour to public and private homes, and small businesses.

Given its complex amalgam of purposes—its primary remit being the reduction of crime rates in the area—and its location, the centre is required to be welcoming, safe, and the community must benefit from its presence.

The design of the building plays a role in delivering these objectives.

Designing a multi-purpose justice centre

The NJC is located at the former technical education site built circa 1941. Designed by renowned architect Percy Everett, the site had been empty for at least ten years prior to the centre opening.

It was selected based on the findings of a feasibility study that recognised the need for a building that was identifiable to the local community, and an appropriate as a multi-purpose work place.

It also brought back to life a building that would otherwise risk becoming a crime ‘hot-spot’. It also brought back to life a building built by one of Melbourne's most important architects.

The design of the centre was developed in a series of workshops with stakeholders, including Yarra residents, and as a pilot project, many established principles of court design were critically reviewed, and new concepts developed.

Placing the court 

The courtroom is located in 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.

people who use the Centre for non-court related activities do not disturb court, and equally, do not feel like they are in a courthouse. It also alleviates the need for clients of the court to congregate on the street.

Community justice posits that court work is one of a range of activities that improve public safety. Therefor 'hiding' the court precluded a neighbourhood’s centre of justice from becoming, in our case, the Collingwood Courthouse.

Bench and bar table

The Magistrates’ bench is lower than in many mainstream courts (except for the Children's Court), and defendants/offenders sit at the bar table beside their legal representatives, in line police prosecutors, and front and centre of their hearing. (The dock is still used for when the person is held in custody).

The court engages people to participate as fully possible in their hearing and, in many cases, refers people to treatment for the conditions that contribute to offending behaviour.

The height of the bench and having everyone at the bar table facilitates the dialogue required to address not simply case, but the underlying issues behind the case.

Transparency  

Nearly every court in Australia is entered through timber doors, which can be extremely unnerving.

The doors to the court at the NJC are ceiling-to-floor glass through which clients and legal representatives observe the Magistrate, proceedings, and who is in the public gallery prior to entering the court.

This level of transparency prepares people to enter an environment that is otherwise hermetically sealed and often wholly foreign.

This court does not hear matters that require a closed court, notwithstanding this, the use of glass makes good the principle that justice must not only be done but seen to be done.

Community in court

Two large windows bathe the courtroom in light and offer views over roof tops, a school, and the busy streets below.

Bringing community life into the court reminds everyone that the decisions made in the room affect many people and hint at what can lost and what can be gained.

Bringing ‘the outside world’ into the room brings the space into the realm of ‘ordinary life’, and this alone can reduce anxiety.

Seeing justice at work

All offices have windows through which staff are visible to the public. This feature pays homage to the principles of transparency in justice and community ownership of the Centre.

Shared space

Courts are typically designed along complex circulation pathways. That is, citizens and staff are separated as much as possible.  At the NJC staff and citizens to share many of the same pathways and zones.

People are also free to traverse all floors of the building, and excluding offices, can use rooms without requiring strict permission.  Sharing space is about rubbing shoulders with the people who live in one's community.

Quiet rooms

Women attending court for family violence matters use ‘quiet rooms’.  Accessible only to staff, these rooms separate applicants from respondents, and give women a place to meet their lawyers, complete paperwork, and wait for court.  Rooms include sound-proof play areas, so children are in sight of mum but out of earshot of adult conversations.

While applicants and staff value the quiet rooms, it is worth reflecting that it is the applicant’s freedom of movement, not the respondent's, that is 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. So, saying the rooms keep women safe from the risk of harm and unnecessary anxiety.

Children

A children’s playroom is located on the ground floor, opposite the security team. Staff use the room to meet with clients who have children (often mothers) and to host supervised parental visits.

And its used by children whose parents are participating in a community group, or other non-court related activity.  It also adds a lovely splash of colour to the Centre.

 

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