Can You Order Lattes in Your Courthouse?

I read an article recently in which the writer asserted there is a new trend in courthouse design and the designer should focus on “improving the customer experience” and then further asserted that “amenities must be provided to make the public comfortable during their stay.”

The customer experience? Amenities must be provided?  

© Creator: Tom Hilton Courthouse Cafe Quincy, California, United States, Taken on July 3, 2010

Although there were valid points made in the article about accommodating a diverse public, making the building accessible for persons with limited mobility and trying to manage the anxiety of people walking through the front door, those are issues that have to be addressed in any new courthouse design. However, suggestions were made that providing coffee bars, stations to re-charge portable devices and lounge areas with cable TV would make people feel more welcome and comfortable. That may be true, but is this really the right image for a courthouse?

Merriam-Webster defines courthouse as “a place where a court of law is held” and defines court as a “meeting where legal judgments are made.” The original county courthouse was often located on the square at the centre of town and served as the centre of commerce, law and justice. The building was elevated far enough above the street to declare it as a prominent place, to make it visible from the surrounding area and to allow public officials a platform for announcements to the crowd. It was also the place where public floggings and public hangings were staged for everyone to see. This public display served as a warning to others and to assure the public that justice was fairly administered. It was the public meeting place and it was public theatre.

There are no longer public floggings or hangings, thank goodness; but the courthouse continues to be a place of judgment and justice. It is still a public meeting place and there is still an aspect of drama and public theatre. People end up at the courthouse not because they’re passing by and want to grab a quick cup of coffee, rather because they have a specific purpose to be there. They may be there for jury duty; to be sworn in as a new U.S. citizen; to get married or divorced; embroiled in a child custody dispute; declaring bankruptcy; or they, or a loved one, are being charged with a crime. They are not customers. They are citizens of a community taking part in a public process — that’s an important distinction.

A courthouse continues to be the place where life-changing decisions are made. I think the building design should reflect the gravity of proceedings taking place within its walls. When a person walks into the building they should get a sense that, whatever their issue, it will be taken seriously. This dignity of place can be achieved, while also sensitively addressing issues of accessibility and anxiety. It is possible to design a building so all citizens feel welcome, without being intimidated. Prominent and logical way-finding must be included. Large screen video displays or kiosks can be elegantly incorporated to show locations for proceedings, with updates in real time. There should be public areas designed on all floors that allow building users to wait comfortably and have a serious conversation with a family or attorney. Maybe charging stations could be incorporated at some point, but we’ll have to ensure that a CNN broadcast or sports game doesn’t interfere with those all-important interactions.

Have we really become a society that needs constant entertainment and distraction — even during our most serious moments? The courthouse should be a place where you have the ability to sit quietly, to think about the situation and concentrate on what you are doing and what might happen. You do not expect to compete for the attention of the judges, clerks and staff who work in the building every day, and they certainly shouldn’t have to compete for yours. It is too important.

I don’t want my courthouse to be a place I can order a tall, non-fat, half-caf caramel macchiato in the express lane and watch an afternoon talk show. I want a dignified place free from unnecessary distractions where I can be heard.

Civic Principal
Insight Topic