Click the book icon to navigate table of contents
swipe left & right
to navigate
Click the book icon to navigate
table of contents
Click here for
previous articles
Click here for
next articles
Scroll Down for
Feature article

Human Rights vs Security: 
Are these in conflict or in convergence ?

WORDS BY Mark Wilde

Over the last few years the Victorian community has seen the rise of two significant conversations, the outcomes of which will have a direct bearing on the future delivery of justice services in this state and beyond. These outcomes will also inform the design of our justice environments, so there is a role for architects to participate in this conversation through their contribution of considered design leadership.

The first conversation concerns domestic violence. We hear the media report what seems to be a never ending number of horrifying events, while surely the vast majority of cases are private and do not reach anywhere near a front page. My observation is that the community has now reached a tipping point in this conversation. The Royal Commission into Family Violence has concluded its work and the Andrews Government has committed significant funding to address all recommendations. While a truly welcome outcome, the challenge is now with service providers to deliver positive change.

The second conversation concerns terrorism. The prospect of a random act of extreme violence against an innocent bystander strikes fear into our hearts and drives wedges into our community. These outcomes must be resisted. In Victoria during 2016, four separate terrorism related trials are expected to commence. Are we now living in an age of terror? Is this the new norm? What are the impacts for the design of our justice environments?

2016 marks the 175th anniversary of the Supreme Court in Victoria. Various activities are planned to formally recognise this significant occasion including talks and tours for the public, an exhibition showcasing items of significance and the publication of a book on the history of the court. At this milestone in the history of the Supreme Court of Victoria, what better time could there be to explore the future for the design of justice environments in Victoria through the winter edition of Architect Victoria?

I am of an age that I can clearly remember an annual celebration called Cracker Night. During the 1960s, in the lead up to the 5th November each year, all the children of the neighbourhood gathered to build a bonfire on a spare block of land. The bonfire was set alight with great excitement and expectation. Children could spend their pocket money at the local milk bar and purchase any number of crackers, sky rockets, sparklers, fountains, jumping jacks and catherine wheels. What fun setting them off with the colour, the noise and the thrill of danger.

The 5th November 1605 was the date when Guy Fawkes and seven co-conspirators planned to kill King James I and other leaders of the kingdom by blowing up the Houses of Parliament at Westminster. The King was Protestant, Guy Fawkes was Catholic. Guy Fawkes was a member of a persecuted and radicalised home grown religious minority group that sought to restore the supremacy of Catholicism in Britain, by any means. Guy Fawkes was able to embed himself as a staff member into the house of the King, it being quite difficult to recognise who was Catholic from their appearance alone. These terrorists planned to use the latest weapon of mass destruction, gunpowder. The King had a vigilant security intelligence agency in place that successfully thwarted the assassination plot. Guy Fawkes was detained in a secure custody facility, abused and tortured. Show trials were held, all accused being found guilty and publically executed and the good people of the kingdom were once again able to go about their normal daily lives.

Do aspects of this story sound familiar? The above account of the Gun Powder Plot as it was to become known has been retold here using terminology from the current day, to remind us that an event of over 400 years ago has direct parallels with our more recent history. Terrorism is not a new phenomenon and the message for the design of our justice environments is to avoid ‘jumping at shadows’.

With British colonisation also came the Westminster system of government, the key features of which are:

  • The government is chosen by a democratically elected parliament
  • There is a public service which impartially serves the government of the day
  • The rule of law prevails with the veracity of evidence tested in court, with trials being presided over by an independent judiciary.

Good civic architecture seeks to be expressive of the values of the institution which it houses and of the relationship of that institution with the society it serves. Court house design should express the contemporary values of justice and the law, and the inter-relationship, of these within our community. These are obviously changing and complex relationships and architecture is only one of many vehicles which a democratic society and its judiciary use to debate and define their inter-relationship.

Certain contemporary values do seem both clear and worthy of expression for the architecture of a court house:

  • Openness (transparency and accessibility)
  • Fairness (equality and balance)
  • Stability (calming, serenity, respectfulness and security)
  • Sustainability (enduring in all respects)
  • Belonging (to place, to community)

Public buildings of great significance are sited in prominent locations within our cities where they can be clearly seen and easily accessed by all. Victoria has a rich history of significant court houses.

Renders by _Architectus

Renders by _Architectus

Renders by _Architectus

Renders by _Architectus

Photographer: Gemma Smith, Collision and Improvisation, Commissioned work for the Foyer of QEII

The court house, along with other public buildings form a heart from which the town centre evolves to continually reinforce the heart. They were built to last for generations and were always fine examples of architecture and expressive of the values of that institution and of the community they serve, at that moment in time.

The security provisions for justice environments, whilst achieving the required physical and visual separations, must be as unobtrusive as possible. Maintenance of the rule of law must be optimised through the architecture of the court room and through the humanity of the justice environment provided.

Normally in a criminal trial in Victoria, accused persons when appearing in court, are required to sit in a place called the dock. The design of the dock has been characterised by a low height timber surround wall and is located at the rear of the court room, in which the accused persons and custodians are seated. In cases where there is deemed sufficient risk to the public or to the accused themselves, high glass panels are installed to secure the dock from the remainder of the room. An unintended consequence of the observance of accused persons sitting in the dock, and particularly behind high glass panels, is that it makes the accused as much as twice as likely to be found guilty1, which is a staggering finding. This consequence, albeit unintended, does not support the rule of law and of the presumption of innocence.

A number of the contributors to this winter edition of Architect Victoria have recently returned from a Scandinavian court tour convened by the Court of the Future Network. Other contributors have also attended past tours to Europe and North America. Over the course of five days while in Denmark and Sweden we saw seven court buildings and not one dock. In the Scandinavian system, accused persons sit at the bar table immediately adjacent to their legal representative (as happens with the US legal system and seen in your favourite US television legal series). With the absence of a dock and in combination with a flat floor to the court room, simpler joinery elements and room layouts are possible. Bar tables for the prosecution and for the defence face each other in clear juxtaposition. Artworks adorn the walls, not overt symbols of justice or of the legal system. Criminal trials, civil trials and family matters were all capable of being heard in the same room. These justice environments, by deliberate design, were less formal than we are accustomed to in Victoria and clearly had egalitarian and democratic principles as their key drivers.

In a world of faster-bettercheaper, my argument is that there is much to be learned from the Scandinavian experience for what a typical justice environment in Victoria could become.



1. For further reading a good summary of the background and research on this topic can be found here