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Feature article
Peter Greste and his Al Jazeera colleagues inside the defendants cage during their trial in Cairo. (AFP: Khaled Desouki)

Obscured by Glass

WORDS BY Cameron Lyon

There are a number of contributory elements to the design of present and future justice environments but none are as polemical as the design and location of the dock, nor as influential to the ‘vibe’ of a courtroom. The polarising elements of human rights and security continue to feed the fire around this discussion and have substantial influence on design outcomes.

For these reasons, the dock has been one of the most researched aspects of courtroom design in the last decade. The dock is the physical representation of the Persons in Custody (PIC) which must be the material manifestation of innocent until proven guilty. Improved understanding of the critical importance of dock design by all stakeholders has continued to trend with contemporary thought finally setting aside the old-fashioned ‘one size fits all’ strategy for a more flexible model.

The ‘flexible’ dock must now be able to cater to the diverse requirements of children’s matters, multiple defendants, interpreters, security, high risk, low risk, warring factions, disruptive behaviours, self representation, technologies, sightlines, consultations, ability to give evidence and ability to receive evidence. This adaptability is now a fundamental necessity of dock design.

It is important to acknowledge that a fair trial cannot occur in the absence of appropriate standards for the accused. These standards include the easy ability to consult counsel, to participate in the proceedings with dignity and fundamentally, to be presented in a manner that upholds the presumption of innocence.

Delivering these incontrovertible rights is made more difficult by the potential offences and behaviours by PIC which have eroded the court’s willingness to provide an ideal environment. It is an unfortunate truth that PIC risks, including offensive behaviours or large numbers, have trumped these standards with the imperative provision of ‘more security’ through the physical containment provided by glazed docks. It is this ‘separation’ of the accused from the broader court environment and the consequent erosion of the principle of innocence which forms the basis of the current debate in dock design.

Alarmingly, the most recent research1 has shown that that there is a significant increase in the presumption of guilt associated with a secure glazed dock. The media images of Peter Greste disturbingly caged in a human scale metal crate underpins this research and should help lay people clearly understand this design predicament. The disturbing trend to physically enclose the dock has been fuelled by the serious nature of offences in combination with the community’s security expectations, despite being a direct contradiction of the fundamentals previously set forth.

As architects there is an expectation that the designed physical environment can address these conflicting requirements. However, when security becomes the driver and security becomes the physical solution there is no space for alternative solutions. There becomes a point where physical protective matters subvert all other ambitions. If management and ‘acceptable risk’ prove too difficult to resolve then physical containment of the PIC becomes the ‘easy’ solution.

Individual jurisdictions are therefore left to resolve the tension between exhibiting robust security (and its associated presumptive guilt) and the paradigm of an ‘open’ court. It is within these warring factions that design in support of fundamental presumed innocence must find a strong and clear voice.

Hand in hand with dock design is the challenge of locating the dock within the court space itself. There exists considerable variation in dock positions across Australian jurisdiction resulting primarily from different risk profiles associated with the PIC and the high levels of deviation in dock design. Escape, violence, extraordinarily offensive acts and intimidation have shaped the courtroom environment and a reactive design culture.

For the purposes of fairness, this geographical challenge is most evident in the placement of the dock in jury trial courtrooms. The primary participants comprising the judge, jury, witness and PIC encircle the centrally located barristers and solicitors. It could reasonably be expected that each of these four elements could quietly occupy their own side of a rectangular courtroom space but this simplistic view fails to fully address the undercurrents which invariably accompany this stressful environment.

Good designers acknowledge these forces which are similar to polarised magnets being placed into a small box. Some will repel, others attract – observable effects of invisible forces. Experience tells us that the dock is imbued with only a repellent action and by default pushes remaining participants further into their corners. Geography becomes delineated by line of sight and intimidatory behaviour and results in a pentagonal hole in which to drive a square peg.

Unfortunately acknowledgement of forces does not provide any insight into how they can be best managed within the multi-headed framework of the competing factors of safety versus potential intimidation, of fairness and dignity versus potential disrespectful behaviour among many others. Regrettably the ‘go to’ is more security and greater distances from others despite the research into diminishing presumptive innocence.

So why, when contemporary court design theory champions the flexible, open court model has the ‘in real life’ solution been so vastly different in its delivery of justice? Have we gone backward in going forward? As a strong advocate for presumptive innocence we should be following the aspirations of the ACT by designing and building our courts to embrace equivalence for all participants. Of course we should be able to deal with the ‘worst of the worst’ and design both spaces, systems and procedures which are able to capably and flexibly deal with these anomalies.

We should not lose sight of justice. Especially not through a pane of glass.



1. Prof. David Tait, University of Western Sydney into Jury Bias, November 2014