Court Design and Access to Justice
At a recent event, Vidhi Centre for Law and Policy released a report on Re-Imagining Consumer Forums: Introducing a Spatial Design Approach to Court Infrastructure (‘Report’). I was part of the panel discussion around it and this piece develops some of the thoughts from that evening’s conversation. While the Report deals with the design of consumer fora, the idea of court architecture playing a role in enhancing (or limiting) access to justice in a broader sense, is interesting and relevant. I have long believed that the aesthetic of our old buildings that house some of our courts enhances productivity. The Karnataka High Court is a gorgeous construction in red brick, enclosed by the Vidhana Soudha and Cubbon Park on either side. In an era when we are seeing what Laurie Baker described as ‘The anarchy of architecture’, these heritage buildings must hold their own. The High Courts at Madras, Bombay and Nagpur are majestic in their own right. Interestingly, there was a proposal to demolish the Karnataka High Court in 1982 which was questioned before the court on the judicial side in what must be one of the earliest Public Interest Litigations filed before the court. The Government of Karnataka reversed its decision after a direction from the Supreme Court to reconsider the matter, when the matter was taken before it in appeal. How much poorer the city would be sans this building, I shudder to think.
Of course, the aesthetic by itself does not improve access to justice unless the design complements it. Here, one must adopt a ‘horses for courses’ approach, rather than conceive of a standardization of court models. Each court has its own infrastructural needs, which are often linked to its jurisdiction. The spatial design of a consumer court or a family court ought be more amenable to parties-in-person and indeed, to litigants themselves even if represented by counsel. Under the auspices of the Karnataka High Court, the Family Court in Bengaluru saw the establishment of a crèche for parents who need to bring young children to court for want of any alternative. Trial courts require witnesses and clients to visit the premises on account of their direct involvement in the case. This may not be the case in the higher courts, particularly in these days of hybrid hearings. The Supreme Court of India has provision for an entry pass to be made for those parties who need to attend to their cases. Facilities at the trial courts must accordingly be tailored to meet the demands of the litigants. Comfortable waiting areas, parking space, clean toilets, cloak rooms / lockers, functional canteens, ample seating inside court halls and availability of free Wi-Fi can make the experience of parties (and counsel) smoother. Public transport adds to this dimension – the proximity of metro stations, especially like the ones that connect the Karnataka High Court to the City Civil Court, improve justice delivery as they improve efficiency. Some courts have the luxury of lawyers’ chambers on site, which can be extremely convenient.
But the endeavour here ought to be to integrate these efficiencies into the existing architecture as far as possible. Many of these older court constructions are part of the city’s heritage, which ironically, is often sought to be protected by court intervention on the judicial side. The Delhi High Court saw the construction of a new block in 2018 and discussions abound to shift the Bombay High Court to Bandra, or some other suitable location. Sometimes these decisions to shift the entire premises of a court are unavoidable due to the age, safety and adequacy of the construction. But in other cases the buildings are capable of renovation and reinforcement. And that is where available infrastructure ought to be maximized. Perhaps I speak selfishly as a lawyer, but practicing in the physical space of the Karnataka High Court is an experience to be treasured. If that can enhance productivity of counsel, ipso facto justice is served.
It has to be said that access to justice is corelated to accessibility to places of justice. Administrators must dwell on how that access can be enhanced, which is not so much in the physical access to the court as it is in access to information. It is not uncommon for clients to wander the corridors of courts, looking for their courts or for the Bar Association halls to find their counsel. Some need to find photocopying desks or printers. These issues can be ironed out by having information kiosks and online displays that point the first-timers in the right direction. That would help reduce anxiety, save time and increase efficiency by avoiding undue delays, adjournments or and inadequacy of instructions.
I recall visiting the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh after a trek to Arthur’s Seat, the imposing hill on the edges of the city. Dressed in jeans and sneakers (and a jacket to deal with the bitter cold!), I was amazed that one could not just walk around the precincts but actually sit in on parliamentary sessions. With necessary security checks and identification, one could walk through the galleries, look at the art and history on display, buy books and mementos at the shop and dine at the café. This was akin to visiting a museum and provided a very direct and easy engagement with the high-house of democracy. In some ways, this builds trust and relationship with institutions. Perhaps courts can consider guided visits to their precincts, say on alternative Saturdays where non-litigants can behold the history and heritage of some of these buildings. The Karnataka High Court has a museum that common Bengalureans ought to be able to take pleasure in.
It is interesting that these conversations are happening at a time when online hearings have become perfunctory. Court design in some ways is now a conversation that relates directly to technology and artificial intelligence. While virtual hearings are more efficient, physical hearings are more effective. Meaning thereby that VCs may enable a counsel to attend to cases before various courts in different cities even, from the comfort of her / his chambers. This also becomes more cost effective for clients by providing savings on travel and hotel costs. It may also be less polluting in terms of reducing fuel emissions (though the electronic carbon footprint may be higher). However, the chemistry of arguing a case face-to-face before a bench with the opposing side (who is fully audible) makes for more tangible outcomes. In some ways, it is more enjoyable as well. As such, the physical spaces remain critical to justice delivery and must evolve to continue discharging their critical constitutional functions. This mandates a responsibility on not just judges themselves, but significantly on the State that funds the infrastructure and staff, as also on the counsel practicing in these courts who are key stake- holders. There is scope here to outsource non-core judicial functions such as archival of documents, interior design, technology support and case-management, if that can enhance productivity.
Ultimately, courts must strive to be litigant-friendly, eco-friendly, gender-sensitive and disabled-friendly in their design. The ramp that was built to provide wheelchair access at the Karnataka High Court does more for access to justice than is obvious. The symbolism of such empathy at the courts is a reassurance to the seekers of justice that they do matter in the larger scheme things.
This article has been authored by Dr. Aditya Sondhi, Senior Advocate. This blog is a part of RSRR’s Excerpts from Experts Blog Series, initiated to bring forth discussion by experts on contemporary legal issues.