From the Dock to the Cinema? Changing courtroom settings in 2020

This post was contributed by Dr Laura Lammasniemi, Assistant Professor, Law School of University of Warwick.

Entrance and front view of the Royal Courts of Justice in the City of London.  Note the coat of arms on your left.
Entrance and front view of the Royal Courts of Justice in the City of London.

If I asked you to describe a criminal court, what would come to your mind?

Maybe you have already visited a court or maybe you have devoured one courtroom drama after another on TV. Even if you aren’t so enthusiastic about the world of criminal law, you probably have a fair idea what an English courtroom looks like. You can picture the serious judge raised above others, overlooking everything in the courtroom. He is hearing the arguments from the prosecutor who is making their case for the defendant’s guilt. Next to the prosecutor, the defence tries to argue the opposite and to ensure their client gets a fair hearing. In England, the guilt of the defendant in Crown Court is always decided by the jury upon hearing the evidence so jury is present in the room too. Last but not least, there is the defendant, usually separate from everyone else – sometimes behind a glass. We take these people and their position in the courtroom for granted but each person and their position in the room serve a careful purpose. You will read more about the trial process and court structures during the Criminal Law module but in this blog, I want to draw you attention to the court as a building.

Winston Churchill once said “We shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us”. This is also true of the courtroom. Criminal trial proceedings have number of functions; to apportion blame and punishment is their key function but they also function as symbols of power and legal authority. The courtroom architecture is an essential part of the symbolic function. There are symbols of justice, imposing furniture, and stacks of paper wherever you look. The courtroom architecture, for example, positions the judge above everyone in the room, at the centre of the room, as a symbol of justice and fairness. Equally, the defendant, often seated in a secure dock that resembles a large glass box, is unable to communicate with anyone in the room but he fully is visible to everyone in the court. It is clear he is there to be examined and judged by those in court.

There are great many traditions that are engrained in the English courtroom from the architecture of the room to the use of wigs and gowns. These traditions serve no practical purpose but they have developed over centuries and become symbols of justice and authority.

What happens when overnight the criminal justice system is asked to relax those traditions? What if judges are asked to preside over criminal trials in the cinema or the local theatre? It turns out, justice can still be served and courts are surprisingly adaptable.

The Lowry Theatre in Salford, turned into a Nightingale Court. Source:
The Lowry Theatre in Salford, turned into a Nightingale Court. Please note this picture contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.

All courts had to close this spring due to COVID restrictions. Some courts adapted remarkably well. The Supreme Court, for example, soon moved all their proceedings online, with Justices and counsels taking part from their homes. The Supreme Court had in fact already taken steps into the digital world by live streaming their hearings through the Supreme Court website and a dedicated Youtube channel.

What of the criminal trials then? These could not be held over the internet due to the complexity of hearings and concern that the principle of fair trial could be compromised. Yet, cases had to be heard. There were already long delays in cases reaching court due to years of budget cuts but the COVID restrictions meant further delays. As a solution to the delays and to accommodate social distancing, the government has introduced the Nightingale Courts. These are court hearings that are heard cinemas, theatres, private venues around the country, instead of traditional courtrooms.  

At the moment these venues are only holding non-serious criminal trials along with civil cases and they haven’t been fully utilises. Yet, it will be interesting to see if the Nightingale and virtual courts become a permanent part of criminal justice system, rapidly changing those traditions and symbols that we have grown to associate with the courtroom.

Interested in finding out more about what criminal courts look and feel like? As courts open for visitors around the world, why not see if you can go visit a local criminal court and observe a trial.

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