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Supreme Court gets tech facelift

|Written By Robert Todd

Architect Allan Teramura hopes the only major change anyone notices within the Supreme Court’s main courtroom this fall is the absence of recently departed Justice Michel Bastarache.

That’s because Teramura led a group charged with bringing the courtroom up to 21st century technology standards, all while retaining the historic structure’s original appearance.

 The associate with WatsonMacEwen architects in Ottawa was the project architect for a court remodeling over the past two summers for Public Works and Government Services Canada on behalf of the Supreme Court.

He says a “fairly extensive intervention” was needed to bring the courtroom up to speed, especially when it came to bringing in cabling to support new equipment.

“In a normal building that wouldn’t necessarily be an enormous challenge,” says Teramura. “But because it is an amazingly refined and highly crafted heritage interior, making this intervention appear invisible was the major challenge for us. Obviously you don’t want to change the character of the room by making a lot of technology suddenly visible in the space.”

Supreme Court deputy registrar Louise Meagher says the Supreme Court received $5.1 million in funding from the Treasury Board for the modernization project, which is expected to cost $6.5 million over four years.

On top of upgrades to the courtroom infrastructure itself, the multi-faceted, four-year program includes e-filing measures, e-doc and records management, and changes to the policy for access to court documents.

In terms of changes to courtroom infrastructure, new digital broadcast quality cameras have been purchased (look out for web casting from the court in the new year), lighting and sound components have been improved, and computers have been installed in benches for all judges, counsel, media, and clerks.

Four new flat-screen monitors also have been installed for the public, an accessible lectern has been put in, audio-visual and interpreter rooms have been refurbished, and wireless internet can now be accessed in the courtroom.

Meagher says much of the equipment in the court was up to 15 years old, with the last major remodeling conducted in the mid-1990s. At that time, new equipment was brought in to permit video conferencing, but reliability of that aging gear became a big concern.

Teramura says the Supreme Court’s desire to have laptop computers installed in all sitting positions in the court - for judges, counsel, clerks, and media - had designers scratching their heads. They needed to recess the computers into desks, but Teramura didn’t want to hack up the original furniture to do it.

Designers ended up fabricating reproduction furniture, he says. The replica desks have removable tops, allowing the computers to be folded back into the desks “so the room has its historic, original appearance when it’s not in use,” and available for tours and other purposes, says Teramura.

Another roadblock came from the nature of the work done at the court. With court staff requiring a quiet environment, construction workers often had to toil on evenings and weekends.

Teramura also notes that the project was under extreme time constraints, as a failure to get the court in working order in time for sittings would have been a major embarrassment.

“It was a fairly large effort on the part of a lot of people,” says Teramura, noting the changes had to be implemented while the court recessed during the summer months.

And while the project took a Herculean effort from artisans, several engineering consulting firms, and craftsmen, Teramura notes the ironic fact that, if done properly, the work should largely go unnoticed.

“So this big effort to do all of this stuff, and ideally the room should look exactly the way it did before,” says Teramura with a chuckle, in reference to the designers’ impetus to retain the courtroom’s historic look.

Teramura’s firm has previously worked on other sections of the top court’s facilities, along with other buildings in the Parliamentary precinct. The firm also has contributed to the design for a proposed new building at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law.

One of the features in the revamped courtroom Teramura is most enthused about is the new barrier-free lectern. It has a concealed hydraulic lift that allows someone in a wheelchair to present to the Supreme Court, “Which in the past was basically impossible,” says Teramura.

“That’s a major improvement in the accessibility of the Supreme Court, which symbolically is quite important too. There are no barriers to presenting at the Supreme Court.”

Meagher says the court administration is pleased with the finished product, and notes that representatives from courts across the globe have visited to learn from the SCC’s modern design.

“It’s a really nice, simple design that maintains the integrity of the room,” says Meagher.

“I don’t find that the technology is taking over, that’s not the main purpose. The main purpose is still to hear cases, as it always has been. And technology is supposed to enhance that experience, not take it over. So I think we’ve accomplished that goal.”

Henry S. Brown, a national leader of Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP’s Supreme Court of Canada practice group with 27 years of experience working with the top court, says the refurbishment has benefited counsel, judges, court staff, and observers alike.

“I’m very happy with the investment in the physical plant,” says Brown. “It’s a very, very special building, and it’s very tastefully done. There were real problems for people with disabilities, and all of those issues have been addressed.”

Brown’s only point of contention is that the counsel room was not improved.

“I continue to hear complaints from my clients about the inadequate counsel room,” he says. “Counsel need a place to chat and maybe, God forbid, settle a case.”

Teramura, meanwhile, feels honoured to have worked on the top court facility. “It is quite a landmark in the history of Canadian architecture, and an exquisitely beautiful building,” he says.

“Just being able to participate in any work in there is quite exciting. It’s intimidating, but quite exciting,” says the architect, sounding much like a lawyer who’s just argued a case at the top court.

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