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New court breaks with tradition

New court breaks with tradition

By Carolyn Ford


The new Shepparton law courts reflect the most contemporary courthouse design, bringing court users and the region into focus.

Jury duty in his late twenties led to Mark Wilde’s lifelong professional interest in court design.

The young Melbourne architect sat on a murder trial in the Supreme Court. It went for months, ending in a hung jury – twice – so he had plenty of time to consider his surrounds.

The experience sparked an interest in court design which has seen Mr Wilde become an award-winning practitioner in the area, and the Architectus director leading the transformation of Shepparton Law Courts (with GHD Woodhead and Guymer Bailey).

“It was life-changing. I was listening to the evidence but I was looking at everything that was going on. It left such an impression on me.

“When I first got the opportunity to work on a court, I grabbed it,” Mr Wilde says.

“I’ve been to a hundred courts around the world. I have photos of all of them and I have trawled through those and done a lot of research for the Shepparton project.”

Even with or perhaps because of his decades of experience, including the prize-winning design of the Queen Elizabeth II Courts of Law in Brisbane, Mr Wilde felt the need, in designing the Shepparton precinct, to construct a full-size polystyrene courtroom as a practice run.

In an Abbotsford warehouse, judges, lawyers, court staff and other stakeholders walked through what was proposed and gave feedback. Bench height, colour and material, flags in court, dock location and design, standing desks and jury sight lines were some of the issues considered.

The practice run paid off. Open for business on 3 April, the $73 million multi-jurisdictional justice precinct, which is a regional headquarters for the greater Hume/Goulburn area, is like no other court in Victoria.

It reflects the most contemporary applications of courthouse design, information technology, environmental sustainability and changing justice delivery models.

The purpose-built court will reduce court delays, provide more accessible and responsive services, offer a safe, secure environment and support all jurisdictions. The Supreme, County, Magistrates’, Children’s and Coroner’s Courts, and VCAT can sit there.

The five level building features six courtrooms with the capacity to vary use to meet caseload requirements. Two are for higher jurisdictions and have a jury box, custody dock and bench space for up to three judges.

Technology is state of the art, including video conferencing facilities to link remote participants in lifelike scale. Bar tables are electronically adjustable.

Public waiting areas and courtrooms are generous in scale, calm in character and filled with abundant natural light that connect seamlessly with country.

Safety is a key feature of the building with bollard seating on the precinct’s perimeter, entry screening equipment, discreet entrances, separate safe waiting areas and enclosed service counters. Four circulation pathways lead judges, the public, people in custody and jurors to court.

There are 23 multi-use interview rooms and break out spaces. Juries have outdoor decks with Goulburn River views.

The Koori Court has been expanded; court staff have better amenities; and there is clear wayfinding including four electronic airport departures-style boards showing what matter is on where.

Representing global best practice with its design principles of accessibility, transparency, calmness and equality, Shepparton Law Courts possesses a dignity and sense of permanence reflective of the institution housed. With its natural light and transparent materials, it stands in opposition to intimidating, dark, fortress-like court rooms of the past.

“Courthouses throughout the western world are experiencing rapid change. Older court buildings are being phased out or transformed,” Mr Wilde says.

“There is more focus on the users, on their support, on helping them get through their day in court. Our aim was a less stressful environment.”

At first glance, before you get to the myriad design features embedded in the L-shaped building to meet it’s A-Z of requirements – even the air-conditioning is programmed to feel like a natural breeze – the court is simply a spectacular public building, standing tall on the Shepparton skyline.

Externally, it is clad in glass, translucent and solid materials like perforated weathered steel, as well as sunscreens and variable blinds, meeting the need for privacy, security, openness and transparency. “Allowing daylight to enter the space provides a connection to country. Somebody giving evidence can look out a window for a few seconds and get some relief from the stress. They can see the trees or clouds, have a think and go on. It’s really important.

“Transparent buildings communicate the perception of open and transparent processes within. It says ‘we have nothing to hide’.”

Another key design element was showing the precinct belongs to the people and reflects Shepparton.

“This is a regional court. We wanted to put detail in that was local to Shepparton to make it more regionally appropriate,” Mr Wilde says.

To that end, the mighty river red gum, local to the area and the logo of the Koori Court, now in its 15th year in Shepparton, has played a major role in the court design.

With its root system anchoring it to the ground and its canopy filtering the sunlight, the tree was the starting point for the design of the entrance lobby. Curved, layered bands of timber on the walls and floor tiles representing gnarly roots abstract the ancient tree internally. Externally, perforated metal filters the intense sunlight, as leaf canopies do in nature.

“Standing in the foyer is like standing under a large leafy tree. Nobody wants to go to court but when they do we want them to come to a welcoming facility, not an austere, authoritarian one. Hopefully the idea of the tree as a sheltered meeting place will be understood and welcomed,” says Mr Wilde.

Local Koori artist Kevin Atkinson’s impression of the tree is inlaid in river red gum in the Koori Court’s central oval table. Elements of the artwork feature throughout the precinct, and there is shelving in courts for local Indigenous artefacts.

As Kaz Gurney, managing lawyer at Goulburn Valley CLC, said on behalf of the Goulburn Valley Law Association at a ceremonial sitting of the Supreme Court at Shepparton in April, the new court complex has an affiliation with the river and Indigenous culture “in spades” and was a credit to its creators. It provided lawyers with “features we all know have been needed for so long”, judges and staff with facilities conducive to their work and court users with “specific and detailed provisions that respect and address their needs”.

At the sitting, the first there for the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Anne Ferguson said the complex, a “spectacular architectural landmark” which provided a “calm space for people to feel protected and secure”, had been designed with users in mind. It embodied integration of services and openness. “The end product is a testament to the benefits of looking at things from the users’ perspective and a tribute to the skill of the architects.”

Lawyer feedback has been uniformly positive, Mr Wilde says. “The lawyers are thrilled. Everything they wanted they got.”

It’s all a long way from Shepparton’s first court of petty sessions, established in 1875 in a brick room at the rear of a punt house which also served as a public hall, dance theatre and church.

Lady Justice is nowhere to be seen in the new court, the traditional image falling out of favour in modern justice interpretations, says Mr Wilde, as the focus shifts from authoritarian symbols to those more inviting and supportive, like the river red gum.

Stage two works, due for completion in October, include demolition of the 1980s court building, development of a landscaped public plaza, completion of the main building facade, and refurbishment of the original 1939 Shepparton courthouse immediately adjacent into a Specialist Family Violence Court, fulfilling recommendations of the Family Violence Royal Commission. It will have a kids’ cubby.

Victoria has a rich history of significant country courthouses. With the post office and town hall, they were the anchors from which town centres developed.

The new court’s foundation as well as other junctions, interfaces and panels acknowledge this “red brick civic memory”.

In designing the new court, Mr Wilde won a few and lost a few. It raised eyebrows but the exterior weathered steel made the cut.

“The layout of courtrooms at the Shepparton Law Courts is typically Victorian, as in the state. Everybody has confidence that this layout has been tried and tested over a long period of time.

“Local precedent and history are powerful arguments, so I don’t know if we will ever achieve what many other courts around the world have.”

But he thinks the weathered steel beauty might have moved things along a bit – and may be reflected in future regional court projects. In the May budget, $20 million was earmarked for Werribee and Bendigo law court developments. Another $5 million will support safety and security upgrades for the Echuca law court.

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