Deconstructing Courts

Last year, on the occasion of Constitution Day, former CJI Justice T. S. Thakur released an artistic and informative piece of work, titled ‘Courts of India: Past to Present’. Prepared under the guidance of the editorial committee, consisting of Justice S. A. Bobde as its head and others, and with contributions from several people, it charts the history of the courts of India since the year 1500 till the present time. With several mesmeric images sandwiched between historical narratives and judicial pronouncements along with few humorous fillings, the book has images of court buildings and courtrooms with their architectural anecdotes. Though this ‘coffee table book’ may be the first of its kind when it comes to a comprehensive presentation of courts of India, it remains silent on many vital aspects of courts. These aspects are the significance of courtroom design, and the placement of courtroom participants such as judges, advocates, press and public within a courtroom. Though, these aspects might not have been on the canvass of the objectives behind writing the book but are as important as the existence of the courts. They highlight the interface between the physical architecture of courts, power-space relations and notion of participatory justice.

Politics of Courtroom Design

Courts are the ‘public’ institutions where justice is delivered to the populace by the State. Judges exercise State’s power conferred upon them to impart justice in an enclosed room with a particular architectural arrangement. Such architectural arrangement, according to Linda Mulcahy, is neither insignificant nor neutral to the outcome of the ‘public’ performance of adjudication done in the courts. Linking courtroom design with the notion of participatory justice, she argues, presents a more nuanced understanding of the judgecraft. Therefore, one needs to look at the shape of the courtroom, its walls and barriers, spatial positioning of the participants, height of partitions within it, and even the choice of materials. The courtroom design also reflects struggles among different stakeholders for the territory within courtrooms.

These arguments unsettle few established notions about courtrooms, their designing, and its significance in their functioning. This leads to few pertinent questions. Are courtroom design, and therefore, the spatial positioning of different participants really significant? Who actually decides the design of courtrooms in India: architect(s), judge(s), civil servant(s) or someone else? Is there any design guide for courts in India as is there in the United Kingdom? Can power and justice be visualized through courtroom design?

Publicity, Openness, and Courts

All the courts of India, except in few circumstances, are open to public access. Anyone and everyone, even with no connection to a dispute or matter in courts, can access them as a right. The courts are open to public viewing to gain social legitimacy. The purpose of law in keeping the courts ‘public’ is to ‘show’ and convince the society that justice is being done. Also, it is perhaps in this context that the famous aphorism, ‘justice must be seen in order to be done’ attains relevance.

According to Bentham, open courts are one of the devices for transferring authority to public, as they educate them and discipline the State. He asks for the empowerment of public by facilitating encounters in various venues to impart them knowledge about and enable scrutiny of different actors and institutions –in this context, the judges and the courts. The Supreme Court, in Mohd. Shahabuddin v. State of Bihar [(2010) 4 SCC 653], has defined ‘open court’ as ‘a court to which general public has a right to be admitted and access to the court is granted to all the persons desirous of entering the court to observe the conduct of the judicial proceedings’. Such right to admission does not by itself lead to the observation of the conduct of judicial proceedings by the public, and therefore, the placement of public in courtrooms becomes pivotal.

Marginalization of ‘Public’?

The theories of justice, according to Norman Spaulding, have not had much to say about the space in which it is administered. Therefore, one needs to get into that space, i.e. the courtroom, to understand its functionalities. The present design of courtrooms in India, being in line with the British courtrooms, is based on the linear seating arrangement, developed by Sir John Soane in the early 19th century in England. There are several partitions in a courtroom. Talking of the Supreme Court, the judges sit on a raised platform, in front of them the court officers and typists sit, and thereafter, start the rows facing the judges that accommodate the advocates. At the very end, there is a public gallery. This is more or less similar in other courts, except the presence of docks (Katgharaa) in the district courts. As this is in a linear fashion, the most distant, and thereby marginalized, participant is ultimately the public.

Why has the public been placed at the margins of the courtrooms? Does this not lead to the departure of the ‘public’ trial and reflect the perception of the public as a ‘threat’ to justice delivery process? If this is so, can we really argue of our judicial system being participatory? Foucault has argued of the significance of space in the exercise of power. Talking of the political nature of architecture at the end of the 18th century, he considered architecture as a function of the aims and techniques of the government of societies. The placement of public galleries at the very margins of the courtroom, therefore, does signify certain politics of power-space relationship, reflecting disempowerment of public. Further, as the Indian courts have their origin in the common law courts, the marginalization of the spectator in the courtroom has its origin in the mid-Victorian era, wherein the public was conceived of as threatening and ‘dirty’.

Conclusion

The courtroom architecture has historical as well as political angles to it. The present courtroom design, segregating public as ‘docile bodies’, has facilitated the sidelining of the issues of participatory justice and judicial accountability. Can we, in this context, think of an alternative courtroom design? The observation of functioning of courts should be considered as a valuable citizenship right, whereby the government should put in efforts to encourage the public to visit courts more often. More public visits will confer more social legitimacy to courts. Further, the courtroom architecture, rather than reflecting ‘power’ and ‘authority’, should create a friendly congenial space of justice and must mirror equality before the law.

Shailesh Kumar is a research scholar at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.