By KIERAN FINNANE
“This court and its judges are here to serve the community, not the other way round.”
This was among comments made by Chief Justice Michael Grant at last Friday’s ceremonial sitting, seeking to dissuade the community from reading too much into the design of the new Supreme Court in Alice Springs.
He was referring mainly to the symbolism of the building’s size (very large in Alice Springs terms) and its “singularity” of design. But how should the community interpret the attention to its needs in the interior spaces of this building?
There are two courtrooms, each of them more spacious than the old courtroom formerly used for Supreme Court matters. Both of them cater for multi-defendant proceedings, with eight seats in the dock of Courtroom 1, four in Courtroom 2.
I have sat through such proceedings in the public gallery of the old courtroom, fairly bursting at the seams, and waited through their adjournments and for their verdicts in the crowded foyer outside. I have observed and been part of jury musters, filling that foyer and coming close to crushingly dangerous inside the old courtroom.
The public galleries of both new courtrooms have greater capacity, with 81 and 41 seats respectively and have room to add more, as we saw during the ceremonial sitting last Friday. Good.
But the foyer, the public waiting area, is another matter.
It comprises a long, cramped corridor, lined with moulded individual seats.
The limited physical space is relieved by the view to the outside; however, it is across roofs in the foreground (radiating heat and glare, see right and below right) even if in the distance are the ranges and the peak of Mount Gillen / Alhekulyele.
There is a branch off the corridor at one end with a couple of couches. The middle of the central space is gutted by the staircase (see below left). There is more moulded seating along the walls of this space, and in front of the screened-off kitchenette to be used during jury selection.
There is really nowhere adequate for groups of people to gather in the way that they often do, in anxious clusters trying to help each other understand what is going on, or seeking explanations from those who know, or weeping in one another’s arms after verdicts that may deliver justice of a sort but not comfort.
Although the length of the corridor may allow for the separation of victims, their families and supporters from defendants’ families and supporters – by the parties dispersing to either end – they will clearly have to cross one another coming and going, as they enter the building, go up to level two and then again as they enter the courtroom.
The space does nothing to accommodate the young children who, from my observation, are often present during proceedings. The open stairwell is a certain danger for the youngest of them and the floor area and seating ill-suited to their needs – to move, play, lie down.
The hard-nosed amongst us will say that a court is not a place for children. But their presence in the public galleries and in the foyer is a reality in this jurisdiction.
They are better off in the old courthouse whatever its limitations: the foyer is safer, its bench seating (as old and worn and uncomfortable as it may be) is better for napping and snuggling, and the courthouse lawns across the road are within sight and earshot of the front stairs. This allows those who may have to take restless children out for a bit to be easily alerted to return at critical moments.
Sonia Brownhill SC, Solicitor-General for the NT, on Friday referred to the importance of the public feeling “confident” of being in “a safe place”. This will be accomplished more by security staff at the front door than the design features of this building.
The ceremonial sitting was held in the morning. I returned in the afternoon for a tour of the facilities (judges’ chambers were off limits), guided by a Court Support Services staffer.
It was 27 degrees outside. The sun in the western sky was falling directly into the main waiting area – the long corridor described above. It cast a few nice shadows. It was also very warm, noticeably much warmer there than further into the space. Even on such a mild day and with air-conditioning systems running, I would not have chosen to sit in this area.
At present there is nothing in place to provide screening from the western sun. I expect that it will be eventually retrofitted as this space will be intolerable in the summer months.
I have mentioned the lawns (DD Smith Park) opposite the old courthouse that will continue as the venue for the busy Local (formerly Magistrates) Court and is destined for refurbishment as a Domestic Violence Court.
The lawns serve not only the needs of families with children but provide a real breathing space, a place to withdraw, wind down, rest, for anyone attending court. They are especially used by Aboriginal people as a waiting area, whether for matters that concern them directly or that concern people they come to support. They have undoubtedly played a role in helping diffuse tensions and disperse people, such as witnessed during the Liam Hurrah committal hearing in 2012.
There is no comparable outdoor space associated with the new building, despite the requirement in the technical brief that “two places to wait outside the facility for small groups” be provided. “At least one should cater for up to fifteen people for a short time. At least one such area should be under cover from adverse weather (wind, sun and rain).”
The foyer and courtrooms I have described above are sealed, air-conditioned spaces. There’s no deck, no ready outdoor egress. Down two levels on the spiral staircase or in the lift, you come out onto the laneway, at present a barren paved strip except for a narrow garden bed at one end and the yellow rabbit ‘public art’ at the other.
According to Town Council paperwork, council will provide seating in the laneway, which is public land. There’s been no response from council to my questions about how much seating, what type and where it will be placed.
DD Smith Park is not far from the new building, but it is not within sight and earshot of the court entrance. It will not be able to function as it has done in the past for people involved in Supreme Court matters, including lawyers and court staff looking for clients and witnesses, as noted by barrister Tania Collins (on behalf of Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service) last Friday.
How did it come to this?
One of the answers is that when the Northern Territory Government adopted Western Australia’s Courts Standard Design Brief as part of its tender documents, it confined itself to functional and technical matters.
Left: In the foreground is the four-defendant dock of Courtroom 2. The colour of justice is grey. Synthetic timber veneer adds nothing of the warmth of natural timber. The colour scheme changes to slate blue in Courtroom 1.
The WA document includes a section on “the psychology of architecture”. It notes that the primary source of psychological relief from the stress of being in court is knowledge of “what is going on, where to go and how to behave”.
The new building does not do very well in this regard: for example, the front entrance to the building is not clearly articulated (you make a guess by taking stock of which set of double doors is in the middle); neither is the reception area (tucked behind the staircase) nor the foyer described above.
The entrances to the two courtrooms off the foyer could not look more anonymous. Court staff (and probably the addition of all sorts of signage) will have to make up for these deficiencies.
But the WA document also talks of “more specific relief […] required at specific times – particularly for victims, witnesses, jurors and some litigants”.
It says: “People will want to gather their thoughts and wits before continuing, they may wish to cry, they may wish to vent their anger or they may need to let their anger subside. This should be possible away from the scrutiny of others.
“If it is not possible, people may be unnecessarily further stressed, they may not be able to continue (and thus threaten the smooth operation of proceedings) or they may upset others who observe their distress — with similar possible consequences for personal psychological trauma and disruption of the operation of the courts.”
Nowhere do the briefing documents for the Alice Springs building contain any such discussion and the brand new facility offers no such places of refuge and respite.
Above: In DD Smith Park, or the courthouse lawns as it is better known, emotions were running high during the Liam Jurrah committal hearing. Photo from our archive.
The WA document includes an Aboriginal cultural brief as well as a brief for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) communities. As is well recognised “Aboriginal people constitute a high proportion of the key parties to legal proceedings conducted before this Supreme Court” – to use the words of Chief Justice Grant, speaking on Friday. Yet nowhere is this reflected in the briefing documents for the Alice Springs building. There is neither an Aboriginal cultural brief nor a CALD brief.
The first sentence of WA’s Aboriginal cultural brief reads as follows: “The importance of undertaking consultation with Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal stakeholders is pivotal to the ultimate design outcome of a courts complex.”
There was no such consultation with non-legal stakeholders, i.e. the community. The fact that no-one lodged an objection during the exhibition period of the Exceptional Development Permit that ultimately allowed this building to proceed on this site does not excuse this glaring omission.
Among the specific recommendations in WA’s Aboriginal cultural brief is this: “Incorporate appropriate gathering and waiting areas external to the building.” I have already outlined the building’s failure to do this.
It also recommends “withdrawal and gathering places at all levels of the building” – I have described the limitations of the second storey foyer and the reception area at ground level.
As for waiting spaces that “enable groups in feuding relationships to be able to avoid each other while waiting for court”, people within the new facility, both staff and others, sooner or later will come to regret the failure to provide for this reality.
Although the building is owned and was developed by 19 Parsons Street Pty Ltd, which is an associated company of Sitzler Brothers, with Michael Sitzler at the helm of both, the NT Government had significant control of the Supreme Court component.
I put a number of questions to the Department of Justice about their role in this part of the development, including about the failure to undertake proactive consultation with the broad community and the failure to include the Aboriginal cultural and CALD briefs in the tender documents.
There has been no answer despite a repeated request.
As I have said previously in relation to the building’s exterior, the community will have to live with the failings of this building for decades to come, no doubt beyond the present 20-year leasing agreement that made it so attractive for the developers to undertake the project.
When I think of what might have been possible – a development that required no retrospective reassurances, but on the contrary, provided an inspiring statement of community aspirations for a better, unifying future while also reflecting the court’s vision statement of a “fair and accessible legal system” for everyone – I heave a bitter sigh. What a massive missed opportunity for this town.
See my book, Trouble: On Trial in Central Australia (UQP, 2016) for many observational accounts of how people have used the spaces in and around the Alice Springs Courts during proceedings between 2009 and 2015.