Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Court Design Influences Jury Decisions

A University of Western Sydney study has found that the place where the accused sits in a courtroom can make a difference to the outcome of their case, with those sitting in a glass-fronted dock twice as likely to be convicted as the same person sitting at the Bar table.

In most Australian courts an accused person sits in a separate enclosure known as the dock, but some Australian courtrooms also use a glass dock. Sitting behind glass docks is more common in the UK, France, Canada and former Soviet-bloc countries, but from as early as 1914 American courts have found that any form of constraint undermines the defendant’s right to a fair trial.

To test this theory, researchers carried out an experiment at the Sydney West trial courts. More than 400 mock jurors watched a 45-minute live trial about an alleged terrorist conspiracy, with actors playing the judge, counsel, witnesses and defendants. Researchers then swapped the position of the accused for different “juries” to see if it had a bearing on their decision, with the accused either at the Bar table, in an open dock or in a glass dock.

“The judges who found that glass docks create prejudice have been proved right,” says Prof David Tait. “What surprised us was the size of the difference, and the way even ordinary docks make defendants look guilty.”

In the study, 60% of jurors who saw the accused in the glass dock returned a guilty verdict, compared with 46% in an open dock and 32% at the Bar table. A defendant sitting in the glass dock was also more likely to be considered dangerous and threatening than in the other locations.

“Situating a defendant in a dock is often justified by saying it’s for the safety of the public or the defendant, but docks are not the answer,” Tait says. “Security is an important concern, but it can be achieved without compromising the fairness of trials.

“Considering the strong evidence in this study, it’s time we redesigned courtrooms to comply with human rights standards,” Tait says.