As the designer of the Court of Appeal and High Court hearing centre in Auckland, I think I know a thing or two about what makes courtrooms truly special. Without getting too E.P. Thompson about it, the majesty of the law is sustained by the formality of our courtrooms. It’s therefore my pleasure and, I think, my duty, to share with you what makes the hearing centre such a fine site for the administration of justice.
First impressions count. We don’t want people to think they’re in some intimidating process. That’s why to get to the hearing centre you enter a non-descript Queen Street office building past a Unichem Pharmacy and a St Pierre’s Sushi. We’re going for a Westfield justice vibe. On Level Two is a LabTests collection centre. As you ride the elevator up to the correct floor, look at the person next to you. For all you know they’re there to drop off a stool sample. That feeling you feel inside? That’s the anticipation of justice.
Once you make it to Level 11 you’ve found us, as long as you turn in the right direction. If you go the other way you’re at the ominous sounding “Learning Centre” for the Ministry of Business, Innovation, Employment and Re-Education Camps.
Now, this is where the impressive parts really start. The lobby immediately invokes hushed tones, principally because there are large signs telling you to speak quietly. We haven’t soundproofed the place and we don’t want the noise to carry into the courtrooms. There is a tiny reception desk if you have some questions, and two client interview rooms that used to house circuit breakers and junction boxes. Without exception every other door is marked with a sign saying “Private”.
Did you know this is where the Employment Court used to sit? Don’t give too much consideration to the idea that this place wasn’t good enough for the Employment Court. No, seriously, the Employment Court.
Of course the courtrooms themselves are, I think, very tidy. No expense has been spared. By which I mean we made sure to kill every possible expense. A lot of people ask me, where is the bar in this courtroom? But what is a bar really? I think a lot of lawyers would tell you it’s nothing but an installation quote for $2500 plus GST that my manager didn’t approve.
But instead of focusing on what’s missing, focus on what we did do. We banged up some wood panelling on a few of the walls, and we got a great deal on old sun-bleached curtains from a church hall in Dunsandel to throw up behind the judges. There’s a crest of course. A little big some might say; possibly a little big. The overspend on the crest meant we couldn’t replace the blinds but they remain as a tasteful evocation of the commercial office-origins of the space.
The judges peer out from behind their double screens. They’re on a raised dais of course, but not too raised. We’re in an office building, so the ceilings are standard height. If the judges get much higher they’re going to be hitting the ceiling tiles. We get them to change some lightbulbs while they’re up there. And naturally all of this can be neatly observed from the three rows of public gallery seating with economy-class leg room.
At the end of the day it’s important to remember that justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done. And there is no denying you can see justice being done. If that is your benchmark of success, then the hearing centre, as a place where your eyes can visibly observe a hearing, must surely be seen as a runaway success. Just put from your minds the symbolism that even though the Court of Appeal hearing centre sits 11 floors up, the Auckland High Court courthouse on the hill still manages to rise above it.