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 and 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’.
The architectural 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.
Place of the court in the centre
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.
First, citizens who meet at the centre for non-court related activities do not disturb court, and equally, do not feel like they are in a court centre. It also alleviates the need for clients of the court to congregate on the street.
The philosophical underpinnings invoke the nature of community justice, which posits court work as one of a range of activities that improve public safety.
'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 usual, and with the exception of custodial clients who sit in the dock, defendants/offenders sit at the bar table beside their legal representatives, in line police prosecutors, and front and centre of their hearing.
Combined these seemingly innocuous features contribute to the therapeutic goals of the court.
As the court sits as Magistrates’ and Children’s courts, the bench subscribes to Children’s Court model and suits the informality of the two tribunals that also sit here.
In addition, the court directs people to engage in their hearing as fully possible and, in many cases, to seek treatment for the conditions that contribute to offending behaviour. The design elements bring the Magistrate and the client close to eye-level with each other, which facilitates the dialogue between the two that marks the court's attention to addressing not simply cases, but the stories behind each case.
Subverting typical ‘us and them’ court layout puts clients front and centre of their hearing and promotes engagement with the justice process, a position particularly important for those for whom a word of encouragement from the Magistrate can be the catalyst for change.
Transparency in justice
Nearly every court in Australia is entered through timber doors, which for the uninitiated can be extremely unnerving.
At this centre, the doors to the court are ceiling to floor glass through which clients and legal representatives observe the Magistrate, proceedings, and can see 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 point, the extensive use of glass makes true the principle that justice must not only be done, but seen to be done.
Community in court
Two large windows bath the courtroom in light and open views over roof tops, a school, and the busy streets below. As with the position of the room itself, this architectural feature helps shape perceptions of justice.
One window is noise-proof, but the panorama brings the community into the courtroom. The second lets in the sounds of children playing in the adjacent school grounds.
Light, and the sounds and view of community life are subconscious reminders that the decisions made in the room affect many people and hint at what can lost and what can be gained.
There is another argument for letting sound into the courtroom. We do not live in a sound-proof world, and it can be testing on the nerves to be in a place that ‘sounds’ removed from reality.
Allowing very low levels of community life into the room brings the space into the realm of ‘ordinary life’, and this alone can reduce anxiety.
In addition, all offices have windows through which staff are visible to the public. Again this pays homage to the principles of transparency in justice and community inclusivity.
Courts are designed along complex circulation pathways that separate clients and staff as much as possible.
These features were subverted at this centre with the layout compelling staff and clients to share many of the same pathways and zones. For example, an awards ceremony held on the ground floor does not preclude clients from using the space to sit in or traverse.
Sharing space is about rubbing shoulders with the people who live in one's community.
Visitors self-navigate the building. That is, people are free to traverse all floors of the building.
This high degree of freedom has resulted in vulnerable clients visiting the centre whether they have an appointment or not, and the centre is, for many, a port in a storm. In turn this increases clients' willingness to engage in services, and improves neighbourhood safety.
Women attending court for family violence matters use ‘quiet rooms’.
Accessible to staff only, these rooms serve to separate applicants from respondents.
We provide these areas for applicants to meet their lawyers, complete paperwork, and as they include sound-proof play areas, 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, indeed, to leave the centre to, for example, top up a parking metre or buy lunch. Applicants require assistance to do this things.
The quiet rooms—popular and practical—may be the best solution, but this is a gendered issue which should not be ignored.
So saying the rooms keep women safe from the risk of harm and unnecessary anxiety.
Behind the scenes there is one zone that is strictly controlled.
The building's existing internal stairwell is a fire escape, safe space, and importantly, it is used to escort applicants in family violence matters in and out of the building out of sight of respondents.
The decision to use what would otherwise be a staff only area, puts the needs of clients first.