Introductory Remarks

Justice Melissa Perry 14 October 2019

2019 Sherman Centre for Culture and Ideas Architecture Hub
“The Architecture of Justice”
Justice and Police Museum 


I wish to begin by expressing my deepest thanks to Gene and Brian and to the dedicated team at SCCI.  This architectural hub, in common with the first, shines light on the extraordinary array of creative possibilities that exist when imaginative and agile minds conceive of architecture as so much more than walls and windows and doors.

It is with great pleasure that I wish to introduce this session on the architecture of justice.  I do not wish to intrude upon the perspectives which our eminent speakers will bring to bear upon this topic but to offer only a few brief observations.

Imposing dark wooden structures cramped into a crowded room.  Light excluded by dark shades.  Black gowns and white wigs.  My father, an actor speaking in a strange and sombre play I did not understand addressing a remote and elevated figure.  I sat at the back of Court Room Number 1 with my mother and brothers watching quietly, overawed by what I saw at the tender age of four.  This was an intimidating place of great authority and imperiousness, perhaps intended to frighten those in the dock into confessing their crimes.

While these first impressions of a courtroom akin to those depicted in Dickensian literature[1] remain with me after all of these years, I could never then have imagined that one day I might be that remote figure to whom learned counsel make their oral addresses; nor that the courtroom where I sit would be spacious and flooded with light. 

The modern court does not simply seek to impress those who enter with its authority but exhibits features which are a metaphor for central aspects of our constitutional system.  I will touch upon just three:  independence, open justice, and accessibility. 

First, underpinning our democratic system established by the Australian Constitution lies the independence of the courts from the Parliament and the executive, both in fact and in the public’s perception.  This independence is vital to ensuring confidence in the courts’ ability to adjudicate upon disputes between ordinary citizens and government, and between different governments in our federal system.[2]  The housing of courts in dedicated courthouses physically apart from the Parliament and the government is a powerful visual representation and reminder of that freedom from political influence.[3] 

Secondly, I and other judges are acutely aware that when we pronounce final orders, rights and interests are impacted upon and in that moment people’s lives may change.  In some cases, this may carry consequences of the most serious kind for life and liberty, as in migration and refugee matters by way of example. 

Court design and architecture must be evocative of that authority, while reinforcing the accessibility of courts to all from the most powerful to the most vulnerable litigants.  And so, typically the entrance areas on the ground floor of court buildings are airy and spacious with high-ceilings, evoking both a sense of awe and of accessibility.[4]

Thirdly, Michael Black, formerly Chief Justice of the Federal Court and a visionary in the field of courtroom and court building design, observed that courtrooms should:

provide access to natural light and, if practicable, views of the outside world. … architecturally, light and access have a powerful symbolic connection with justice.[5] 

The symbolism to which his Honour averred refers among other things to the principle of open justice.  This was described by the current Chief Justice of the Federal Court, Allsop CJ, as one of:

the overarching principles … [which lie] at the heart of the exercise of judicial power as part of the wider democratic process.  The principle involves justice being seen to be done.[6] 

In other words, the maintenance of public confidence in the courts relies upon judicial proceedings “being open to scrutiny by the general public”.[7]  That confidence would be imperilled if the administration of justice took place behind closed doors save where exceptional circumstances in the interests of justice warrant such steps being taken. 

Glass therefore features extensively in the new and renovated Federal Court buildings across Australia, literally and metaphorically casting light upon the administration of justice daily.  Further, in the case of the Roma Mitchell Commonwealth Law Court building in Adelaide, soft eucalyptus green and blue lozenge-shaped glass windows are evocative of the local environment and emphasise the Australian character of the Court – a theme repeated in different ways across the Federal Court buildings in different States.[8] 

Finally, a courtroom is so much more than its traditional components:  the bench from whence the judge presides, the bar from which advocates seek to sway the judge and the jury, the box from which witnesses give evidence, the dock where the accused must sit, and the public gallery.   They can also be used in creative manners consistent with the purpose of the Court as a public institution.  For example, courtrooms are currently used to host student advocacy competitions and for public speeches and events.   With such uses in mind, Chief Justice Black explained at his farewell that the redesigned Courtroom 1 in Sydney:

reflect[ed] the design philosophy that … whilst courts should be places of dignity and should reflect the importance of the law in our society, they should also be places that invite the public to be present and provide proper facilities for the public.[9] 

And so Courtroom 1 can be converted into a U-shaped configuration to become a lecture theatre, and features a custom-built lectern that turns around such that it remains “exactly the right distance from the speaker” as it pivots.[10] 

How far then we have moved from the dark and imposing courtroom where I once sat quietly as a young girl so many years ago.  I thank you for the opportunity to speak and with much pleasure await the insights of our speakers.

*   Justice of the Federal Court of Australia; LLB (Hons, Adel), LLM, PhD (Cantab), FAAL.

[1]   See Charles Dickens, Bleak House (Queensway Press, first published 1852); see also “Ceremonial sitting of the Full Court on the occasion of the opening of the new ceremonial court and farewell to the Honourable Michael Black AC, Chief Justice, Federal Court of Australia” (FCA) [2010] Federal Judicial Scholarship 7 at p. 8.

[2]   See, e.g. M A Perry, “Chapter III and the Powers of Non-Judicial Tribunals: Breckler and Beyond” in Adrienne Stone and George Williams, The High Court at the Crossroads: Essays in Constitutional Law (Federation Press, 2000) 149 at p. 166-171, 173-174.

[3]   High Court of Australia, ‘The Building’ (2010) <>, cited in G Juscyczk, “Power on a Pedestal: What role does architecture play in creating, reinforcing or reflecting power structures in the legal system?” (2019, ANU, copy on file with the author) at p. 4 n 18.

[4]   Cf Juscyczk, above n 3 at p. 17.

[5]   “Ceremonial sitting of the Full Court”, above n 1 at p. 3.

[6]   Minister for Immigration and Border Protection v Egan [2018] FCA 1320 at [4] (Allsop CJ).

[7]   SRD v Australian Securities Commission (1994) 52 FCR 187 at p. 189 (Hill J).

[8]   See “Ceremonial sitting of the Full Court”, above n 1 at pp. 3-4.

[9]   Ibid at p. 3 (emphasis added).

[10]  Ibid at pp. 3-4.