Courts in a Time of Crisis: The Nightingale Courts of England and Wales

In 2020 the Nightingale Courts of England and Wales came into being as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic. This eclectic group of courts followed an entirely new model of Crown court and were set up in unusual locations, such as hotels, offices, university lecture spaces, ecclesiastical buildings, and even a theatre. The results were sometimes dramatic, but an important effect of this collaboration between Law and Architecture was to develop a new research methodology to investigate legal spaces at the intersection of the disciplines. As pressure builds to digitise the courts, an architectural phenomenological and anthropological approach to the design of courts can help us understand how the experience of legal space is important to the culture of law.

This research focusses on the individual experience at the interface of the ideology of the rule of law and the pursuit of justice. The rule of law is seen as the embodiment of an aspiration for justice and the courts as the physical manifestation of that aspiration. The focus is on the question of how we access justice, as sensory and physical human beings. Access to justice can be understood as the means through which the courts act as interfaces between individuals, society, and the law. The form of the courts is the cultural and physical manifestation of society’s relationship with the rule of law and tracks its development over time. It is both physical, as an architectural and spatial entity, and cultural, as a man-made artefact, reflecting the highest aspirations and imbued with culturally important signs and meanings.

This is true at both national and international levels. What we read from the architecture and spatial design of our regional and national courts speaks of our cultural identities and our relationships as individuals and as societies with the rule of law, both as nations and as international presences.

The form of future courts needs to match the desire of people to see it, know it and understand their interactions with it as a part of the justice process.

The form of future courts needs to match the desire of people to see it, know it and understand their interactions with it as a part of the justice process. This process begins and ends in space, whether it be a virtual interface accessed from a remote hearing space or a courthouse. How people understand space and interact with it at these thresholds is therefore important. Human beings have evolved to interact physically and emotionally, and we are all innately capable of reading and understanding social constructs through space and through the culture of law and its artefacts, aesthetics, and iconography. The conventional court model of justice designed to facilitate this are no longer flexible enough to reflect the rule of law as it evolves, and perhaps too anodyne to reflect the relationship between people and justice.

The speed of change is outstripping our ability to evolve. The advent of technology, providing courts with a degree of virtual function, would seem to obviate the use of buildings as the primary location of future courts. In this context, we must ask how far can we safely go towards virtual justice, and what do we lose when we lose the courts? The experience of the Nightingale courts has shown that whilst we do not always need court buildings of the static typology we are used to, we do need trial courts to be located in a physical space, because the trial process is a performative, experiential, and public event at the heart of our shared legal cultures.

Lorna Cameron is an Associate Lecturer in Architecture at the University of Lincoln, U.K. She is currently completing a PhD Thesis entitled: ‘Law and Architecture: The Court Deconstructed: Access to justice through architecture as cultural interface between the rule of law, the individual and society.’ Her expertise includes specifically the ‘Nightingale Courts’.

This piece is part of the legal sightseeing
mini-blog series on institutional architecture:
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