Review of The Spaces of Justice: The Architecture of the Scottish Court (Robson and Rodger)

The Spaces of Justice: The Architecture of the Scottish Court

Peter Robson and Johnny Rodger

ISBN: 978-1683930884
PRICE: £60 (e-book £55)

This absorbing book, an interdisciplinary collaboration between academics, is as far as I know unique in Scottish legal and architectural scholarship.

The first half tells the history of the Scottish court building, putting it in the context of the social and legal developments of the last 300 years or so. I found plenty to fascinate me: for example, the challenge faced by Scottish Courts & Tribunals Service in keeping its court estate fit for purpose is encapsulated in the telling statistic that around two-thirds of the structures hosting 21st century justice in Scotland were built in the 19th century. And those of us who have suffered through a day inside Glasgow Sheriff Court – to my mind, at least, a brooding, powerful building on the outside, but filled with cheerless, artificially-lit courtrooms – may be intrigued by the authors’ analysis of the shift away from the use of natural light in newer court designs.

I was also interested in their comparison between what they see as the architectural timidity of many recent Scottish court buildings, and the radical and exciting designs emerging in France, particularly the way in which the latter add to the “debate on the relationships between lighting, transparency, and accessibility in all its political and civil ramifications”. However, SCTS could reasonably reply that it cost France the thick end of 6 billion francs to restructure its court estate and have that debate.

The second half of the book is a lengthy appendix which serves as a gazetteer of the court buildings of Scotland, with photos (of, unfortunately, variable quality) of some; and information about the situation, history, exterior and interior of all.

If that were all the book contained, it would be enough for it to stand as an invaluable work of historical, jurisprudential, and architectural research. But there’s more: the final chapter looks to the future, and to the way in which the form taken by a 21st century court system might interact with, and affect public perception of, the justice system. The authors correctly identify that most of the debate about the future shape of the system has taken place almost entirely within that system; wider society, for now, remains largely unengaged in the discussion. Which is important, because if you accept that the built environment influences the way in which we think and act, as individuals and as a society, then the way in which our justice system is manifested matters a great deal.

Change, of course, is inevitable, and very probably desirable. We have managed to live without trumpeters in the High Court. We may, in due course, lose the wigs and the gowns, a process which is already underway. And if we were able, may it please the court, to find a way to humbly sheweth the appropriate amount of respect in the courtroom, without the use of unnecessarily orotund or archaic language, I’d be greatly obliged. But what is now being proposed represents, perhaps, the most radical change in our justice system in decades, perhaps centuries.

On the one hand, SCTS is committed to the development of “justice centres”, such as that in existence in Livingston and planned for Inverness, which bring a number of organisations and agencies under the same roof as courtrooms. (The book, it should be said, inadvertently misrepresents SCTS’s intentions as set out in Shaping Scotland’s Court Services: the stated plan is to move over a 10-year period to accommodate sheriff and jury business in 16 specialist courts, not to reduce the total number of sheriff courts to 16.) Looking beyond that, though, it is suggested that the greater use of technology throughout the system will lead in early course to the creation of the “virtual court” – one which takes place entirely online, using TV and other links, rather than being hosted in a building. And while much of the debate about the future of the court estate has been shaped by consideration of such factors as efficiency and cost-effectiveness – important though these are – if we end up with a system which pays its way but which does not command the confidence of wider society, then we may be in danger of sacrificing something very important on the altar of progress.

It may be that the reader will reach slightly different conclusions to the authors. They are optimistic, for example, that the justice system of the future will be, among other things, more “democratic”; one might, by way of contrast, take the view that judges should, from time to time, be standing firm in defence of the rule of law, at the risk of being labelled as “enemies of the people”, even where that comes into apparent conflict with democracy. But this is one debate of many which we need to have, and the authors are to be commended for participating in it. This book, in short, can be recommended to anyone with an interest in the past, present, or future of Scotland’s court system. Architecture geeks – like me – will find much to please them as well. I will be taking it with me next time I visit any of our court buildings, seeing them with fresh eyes.


The Author
David A Dickson
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