Court Room Architecture as Change
The Rape Survivors Justice Campaign was delighted to attend the opening of the new Booysens magistrate’s court. Although it was a campaign victory because of the special court for hearing sexual offences, we did not expect to feel a sense of joy.
Architectural works, in the material form of buildings, are often perceived as cultural symbols and as works of art. In their planning, design and construction they house and support the lives of people, usually for a specific purpose. The need for schooling, healing, worship, shelter will ask for schools, hospitals, churches, homes. Historical civilizations are often identified with their surviving architectural achievements. For architects, the form of a building can bring about a change in the lives of the people using that building in order to make things better for them. A poorly built building, not designed for its purpose can be a frustrating and depressing thing. A beautifully built structure makes inhabiting it a joy.
Telling someone else the story of how a person raped you must be one of the most difficult things to do. Telling that story in a court room in front of officials is a thousand times harder. It is made even more difficult when you must share a bench outside the court with the rapist – perhaps more than one – and their family and supporters, pass them on the way to the bathroom or step past them on the way to the witness stand. We have seen courtrooms where the space is so cramped that doing this can mean that you must almost touch the rapist in passing.
At Booysens court the architecture itself is designed in such a way that it is not possible for rape survivors to experience this kind of trauma. The court is designed to extend over two floors so that rape survivors and other witnesses for the prosecution never have to pass by the rapist or his supporters on the way through the corridors to the court room. There is a waiting room and consulting rooms for court supporters and prosecutors together with a bathroom on the downstairs floor. There is stairway linking these rooms to the court room above that only serves the witnesses for the prosecution while witnesses for the defence enter from the cells or a separate corridor in the upper floor.
There is a separate intermediary room for adult rape survivors that are too traumatised to testify in court, where an intermediary will interview them and their testimony is relayed to and from the court room via closed circuit television.
The court is also sensitive to the different needs of adult and child witnesses with a separate play area for children. Many other court waiting rooms are decorated for children only, even though adult witnesses also wait in this area, which infantilises them. To sit in a room with a wall painted with murals of Disney characters gives false cheer to an adult needing real comfort and support.
As the court settles in and specially trained personnel are deployed, so they will begin to bring on board NGOs to offer court support services such as that provided by the Teddy Bear Foundation that offers activities that help child witnesses, to get ready for the experience of telling their stories in court.
We have been advocating for our government to roll out more sexual offences courts for the past three years. Each new court is a victory but this court is a joy. It is beautiful in design and beautiful in form because it recognises the need for women – there is a separate room for breastfeeding mothers to feed and change their children – and for rape survivors to feel safe, cared for and prepared when they do one of the most difficult things of their lives: bringing a rapist to justice.