Courtrooms are designed so the people participating experience a sense of importance in the legal process.
Jurors sit in what we refer to as a “box”, which is a set of chairs surrounded by a small partition. The partition certainly isn’t necessary – people could sit in benches behind the lawyers and still see and hear everything. The point is the jury is special. During a trial, they hold the power to decide the fate of the parties. That authority is recognized by the placement of the jurors, and the fact that they are shown a lot of deference; the rest of the people in the courtroom (even the judge) stands when they enter and exit, no one but the judge is allowed to speak to them while trial is proceeding, and they have a room where their conversations are kept private. Jurors are temporarily clothed in a kind of invisible judge’s robe, and that comes with recognition.
The judge and his staff sit on an elevated stage called “the bench.” I’m sure there is some historical reason why they call it that, but I don’t remember it. The judge is the highest and is central to the layout. Below him are the clerk and the bailiff. The clerk is in charge of the evidence, whether spoken or documentary. They ensure that items are properly labeled, and that testimony is properly recorded. This is crucial for purposes of recording what happens at trial, should either party appeal. A clear record is not easy to create, and the clerk makes sure that happens. The bailiff is the extension of the judge in the courtroom, and handles the jurors, the parties, and basically everyone inside the courtroom. The judge is in charge, but the bailiff is her right-hand man.
The witness stand is to the right of the judge. It is the place where witnesses sit while they testify. It is in-between the judge and the jury, so that both can hear and see the witnesses clearly. The jury needs to hear and see the witness, so that they can remember the evidence the witness delivers, and the judge so that objections and motions can be decided when proposed. Witnesses are questioned by the lawyers, and sometimes the jurors, and must answer questions under oath until all the parties have had the chance to obtain the evidence they want to come to light.
The parties sit at tables in the “well” of the court. The well is just the open space in front of the jury and the judge, and it is the stage upon which the lawyers act out their parts. Each lawyer uses the well to conduct questions, display evidence, and to present their case to the jury. It is the neutral zone where both sides do battle.
The gallery is the area behind the tables where the parties and their lawyers sit. There are usually benches or seats where the public is permitted to watch a trial. Our courts our open to the public, though the judge may ask who is present and why. It’s public, but the judge still has the authority to remove anyone who will distract from the case.
Courtrooms are important places, and appreciating their design helps us understand how to present a case in the best way possible.