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Distributed Courtroom Experiment in the QEII Law Courts, Brisbane: Montage showing 3 individual courtrooms merged via digital screens to host the one proceeding. Photographer _Paul Katsieris

The Modern Courtroom:
Security, Technology and the Tree

WORDS BY Paul Katsieris

Security in court is often thought of in its purely physical sense; the provision of a court environment free from intimidation or violence. But what if security is thought of in a more philosophical sense; the security of the very idea of a court as a cultural form? Could it be that the contemporary court is losing its metaphysical and spatial allusions to a bounded place through the ever-increasing intrusions of digital technologies that distort the security of the court room?

A further series of questions arise:

If digital technology is no longer uniformly tying courtroom participants to a physical court space, then what becomes the binding agent in virtual space? Where is the ‘court’? Does the ‘where’ matter?

What will be the transformative impact of digital technology on court space and on courtroom dynamics?

 

Court and Nature

The link between the courtroom and the natural world goes back hundreds of years and transcends cultures. It is common in many cultures that law-giving, lore-giving, debates, justice, ceremony, teaching and community gatherings take place in open fields, natural clearings, cultivated gardens or beneath a significant tree. The symbol of the tree is embedded throughout cultures and religions as the signifier of knowledge and wisdom. It is a symbolic conduit between our natural world and a divine order. In many traditions, the Buddha, the Yogi, the Rabbi, the teacher, and the elder would sit with their back to the tree with their audience gathered around under the spread of the canopy. Could this simple human construct be the predecessor of the courtroom as we know it?

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, western court buildings resembled cathedrals and churches with all manner of domes, knaves, apses and spatial effects designed to invoke the authority of a higher, theistic order onto the affairs of the mortals below.

 

Nature and the Modernist Court

Writing in this same journal some 15 years ago, I proposed that in the High Court of Australia (Edwards, Madigan, Torzillo and Briggs, Architects; 1975-80) there has been a new transplanting of theistic notions of divine presence with modernist spatial ideas drawn from natural topography. I argued that in the High Court of Australia, the heroic scales and spaces of the Australian landscape were condensed and re-codified in concrete to create an interior recalling gorges, canyons, ossified trees and forest canopies. This new court architecture, as pure a form of Brutalism as there ever could be, invoked the presence of a higher order without employing the neo-religious forms of traditional court architecture. Instead it did so by recalling the Australian landscape in concrete and by controlling and composing the admission of natural light and view accordingly.

 

Screens

In recent years, an ever-increasing number and type of digital display screens have appeared as fixtures within the space of the modern courtroom. It is not unusual now for several large screens to be suspended from ceilings and attached to walls around a courtroom. Smaller screens are also provided throughout the body of the court and fixed to courtroom joinery including a screen for each judge, judge’s associate, every juror, the witness, the accused and around the public gallery. Owing to their size and location, screens have become active modifiers of the space of contemporary courtrooms often competing for precious wall-area with windows and the provision of natural light and views into the space. Screens are becoming a disruptive physical barrier reducing the spatial dignity of the courtroom as much as they add to proceedings via their capacity to transmit audio visual information throughout the space.

Digital screens and audio visual technology do not only pose a physical disruption to the court space, they also pose a threat to the idea of the court being a singular place where the conduct and affairs of citizens are fairly considered and judged by their fellow citizens according to law.

Increasingly, audio visual technology is becoming widely used to beam live testimony into the courtroom made by a witness situated elsewhere. This ‘crossing-live’ mode of giving testimony and conducting cross-examinations is on the increase because it is seen to provide greater physical security for vulnerable witnesses, or for the control of violent defendants. Where ‘security’ requires the removal of an individual from the courtroom, to be replaced with an electronic image, it is problematic and potentially open to abuse.

Who makes the decision whether the defendant is too dangerous to appear in person? What if the parallel tendency to have defendants appear digitally in court from remote locations such as correctional facilities is not because of security issues but because the costs of transporting
them are deemed too high or difficult?

 

De-formation

Far from being a neutral transmitter of information, the use of technology in such ways can obscure the message through the mode of its very transmission. How is the demeanour of the witness accurately conveyed back to the main courtroom? Is the remote witness under-lit, top-lit or side-lit with harsh or soft shadows? Is the background wall behind the remote witness made of concrete block or the same timber panelling of the main courtroom or another material? Are the acoustics from the remote location cold, echoing and harsh while the acoustics within the main courtroom remain warm, direct, full and nuanced? Are the eyes of the remote witness ‘looking’ at their questioner or are they all too often squinting elsewhere implying an avoidance; a shifting, furtive gaze when in-fact the witness is simply discombobulated by their surroundings. Is their genuine struggle to understand distant voices addressing them and the intrusive presence of audio visual machinery directed at them interpreted back in the main courtroom as evasion, subterfuge designed to disguise dishonesty or untruthfulness?

The power behind visual and aural cues transmitted via technology is often skilfully deployed by film-makers to manipulate the emotions, reactions and prejudices of their audiences. Film-makers are able to exploit the technology of the moving image to achieve their art. This same technology binds behavioural attitudes onto remote participants that are not present at the place from where they testify. These unintended distortions in a person’s apparent attitude and demeanour can colour the considerations of juries and even of experienced judges. Insofar as the courtroom
should be a ‘pure’ physical arena within which human affairs are fairly examined and in which all the relevant parties are physically present in the one space and in the one time, the transformative effects of digital technology represent a profound disruption to the architecture of the courtroom.

 

Triple Threat

Most recently, an experiment of court proceedings conducted through multi-screen technologies organised by Professor David Tait’s Justice Research Group at the Queen Elizabeth Law Courts in Brisbane, was instructive in the way that digital screen technology modified one’s perception of the court space and the parties within it. In the experiment, three parallel courtrooms were used as individual sites containing a singular simultaneous court proceedings.

The first courtroom contained the judge, the second courtroom contained the complainant and his counsel, while the third and final courtroom contained the accused and his counsel. Each party was ‘present’ in every courtroom and visible to the other parties (and a public gallery) via large digital screens while only being physically present in their own ‘satellite’ court room. What was immediately obvious was the perceptual domination of the ‘actor’ on screen. The party physically present in the courtroom, whether judge, litigant or counsel, seemed diminished in stature and presence within the courtroom by the parties appearing via screen. There was an immediate imbalance in the space due to the compelling and radiant beauty of the digital technology. The brightness and size of the image made the digital actors seemed Olympian and confident in the court space where the physically present actors seemed diminished and unequal to their Olympian counterparts.

Witnessing this technological verisimilitude, I was struck with its import for the future of the courtroom as a symbolically potent and culturally meaningful form.

If the contemporary courtroom has indeed become a central physical, bounded space tethered virtually to ‘satellite’ sub-spaces via digital technology, how does the court properly secure its spatial dignity, sense of even-handedness and procedural fairness? Where is the modern courtroom’s metaphysical link to the symbolic ‘tree’ at the heart of its form? Or, have things drifted so far from the domain of the architect that it no longer matters?