Justice by design changes lives

This is no ordinary court precinct, and this weekend you have the chance to visit as part of Open House Melbourne.

The ground floor is an airy space with a children’s play room opposite the entrance. Community artwork is scattered throughout, and redgum benches offer public and private seating. There are nooks and crannies for quiet conversation and the effect is one of calm. Can I be in a court?

‘This is a community centre as well as a court,’ says Communications Manager Ann Strunks. ‘As we say, the court isn’t the centre, the community is the centre of this place.’

This morning I am visiting Collingwood’s Neighbourhood Justice Centre. The art deco building opened in 1912 as the Collingwood Technical College, and up until the late 1980s was a centrepiece of local life. It was closed in 1987, and the building, designed by renowned architect Percy Everett, was left to the rats and vandals. In 2007, the Neighbourhood Justice Centre breathed life back into the building.

The Neighbourhood Justice Centre has a unique way of dealing with justice issues in the community. It addresses social problems that lead to crime through the Magistrates’ Court and community engagement.

The centre is guided by the notion of community justice, a concept that fuses criminal justice with social justice. The focus is on helping people get their lives back on track, whether that that be through drug rehabilitation, financial counselling, housing support or other social services, which are integrated with the court's functions.

There’s barely anyone downstairs this morning, just a few people moving through. A woman, sobbing, is quietly guided by two support workers into one of the private meeting rooms, a preoccupied man and a teenager head upstairs to where the action is. The court sits as a Magistrates’ Court, Children’s Court, Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal and Victims of Crime Assistance Tribunal, and hears 4500 cases each year.

The Neighbourhood Justice Centre has a people-focused design. This comes through in the details of the building including the large glass window that allows people to see into the court so they can familiarise themselves with the surroundings before entering.

Unlike many courts this one is on the corner of the first floor where it enjoys natural light streaming through the windows. Traditionally courts were in the middle of the building and magistrates worked under unnatural light. ‘When we were designing this place we said, no, we need to bring light into the court,’ Strunks says.

The windows overlooking Perry Street are semi-permeable, and intentionally designed to allow in the sounds of children playing in the schoolyard nearby. While some might say that you shouldn’t be able to hear outside noise, that it’s distracting, the sound of normal life is a reminder that the court is part of, not separate to, the life of the community.

Here, the person in court sits next to their lawyer at the bar table, lending a sense of informality. And unlike in other courts, the magistrate’s bench is only slightly raised, encouraging people in court to speak more naturally than might otherwise be the case. We see this in action as Magistrate David Fanning has a conversation eye-to-eye with the person before him.

There are no large signs dictating where to go and what to do. It’s more low-key than that. ‘We don’t want people to look for a sign, they should look for people. The whole idea is that wherever there is a potential barrier between anyone and us - we take that down.’

Find out more about the colourful history and design of the Neighbourhood Justice Centre during a tour on Saturday 29 July as part of Open House Melbourne. You can find more information about the event here.

This page was last updated on July 31, 2017