Of Taj Mahals and Strip Malls

A professional friend of mine in the health-care field once confided to me his very wise approach to automotive shopping. “You want to be classy. Refined. Executive. I can’t show up in an old econo-box and still expect the patients to trust and respect me” he said. “On the other hand, there’s a balance. You don’t want to be so classy, refined or executive that your patients leave your office through the parking lot wondering why they’re paying you so damn much.” Kia and Porsche? Not so much. Stylish but sensible Acura? Just right.

It turns out that courthouses can learn a lot from the types of cars that Orthodontists drive.

As a criminal defence lawyer based in the Greater Toronto Area, visiting different courthouses all across Southern Ontario is just a part of the daily grind. The running joke in our office is that our lawyers go “wherever there is injustice!” This evokes images of a dashing criminal lawyer donning a red cape and a briefcase before leaping into the sky to fly to her next international fraud case. The reality more often-than-not is a bleary-eyed criminal lawyer, exhausted from the previous nights’ meticulous review of mind-numbing transcripts, clambering into a car in the dusky grayness of a pre-dawn morning to start the long drive to whatever courthouse his client happens to have a trial in that day. The upshot of the life of a travelling justice salesman is that we get to see a broad collection of the Province’s Palais de Justice as we say in French.

On a recent trip to the newly opened Waterloo Regional Courthouse located in Kitchener, I was struck by the unintended accuracy of the French moniker “Palace of Justice”. The new Waterloo structure amalgamates several smaller courthouses from across the region and is a striking piece of bureaucratic architecture replete with vaulted glass-canopied ceilings, sweeping patterned marble floors, exposed stone and woodwork, and a law library with a circulation desk built out of old bound legal tomes. In short, it is extremely impressive. And it had better be for the $766 million dollar price tag. Kitchener is the latest in a string of courthouse revitalization projects that has seen state-of-the-art facilities crop up first in Brampton and Oshawa.

Meanwhile, as court staff in Kitchener learn their way around ceiling-mounted high-definition digital projectors and integrated audio amplification and recording equipment, less than 100km down the 401, Toronto’s hodgepodge of forlorn courthouses litter the GTA like a handful of dented pennies accidentally discarded from the Ministry of the Attorney General’s pocket; so bereft of class or value that it’s not even worth the Ministry’s time to stoop low and pick them back up.

Hogtown has no less than six courthouses serving the criminal justice system, four of which are housed in strip malls and suffering from various stages of neglect. Step through the wrong door in the vicinity of a Toronto criminal courthouse and you’re just as likely to end up in a Swiss Chalet or a methadone clinic instead of a courtroom. It’s a tad difficult to convey the gravitas of a criminal trial to a defendant in a setting that looks like it was designed by a 1950’s futurist trying to predict 1970’s interior design trends. Crown and defence lawyers alike pray for short trials in the hopes of minimizing time in chairs that make the Iron Throne feel like an Obus Forme. At least the regal and stately Old City Hall in the downtown core exhibits the grandeur and history of a bygone criminal justice age, though decades of haphazard retrofitting have left their mark. Summer brings a Faustian choice between baking in the sweltering heat or being left unable to hear a trial proceeding at all over the jet-engine roar of window-installed air-conditioning units. Try finding the prisoner cells in the basement or the Court Reporters office in the attic without a knowledgeable Spirit Guide and you may end up lost for days in the warren of mismatched cubbyholes and maintenance closets that spring up like tufts of grass from a Chia Pet.

The malaise of arguing arcane points of law in a roadside strip mall might be alleviated somewhat if the buildings could at least generate a touch of character. Collingwood’s Provincial courthouse shares a drab gravel driveway with other non-descript tenants but rises above its humble architecture by making the most of a sublime view of Georgian Bay through the courtroom’s floor-to-ceiling windows flanking the judicial bench.

The question to be posed is: what should the public reasonably expect from our courthouses in an era of persistent economic challenge? The patchwork quilt of neglected and abused strip-mall justice that persists across much of the GTA fails to inspire the minimum degree of awe and reverence that a courthouse should aspire to. Having said that, the recent spate of Taj Mahal justice palaces evidenced by the castle of glass in Kitchener makes me feel like the erstwhile patient in the orthodontist’s parking lot – how much am I paying these guys again??

As Ontario continues its necessary incremental upgrade to the Provincial courthouse infrastructure, it bears repeating that taxpayers aren’t looking to be blown away by architectural marvels. Scarce public resources are better spent on the services housed within the courthouse walls than on the buildings themselves. Policing, drug and alcohol treatment programs, counselling, victim’s services, and legal aid could all benefit by a more responsible balancing of our budgetary priorities. Taj Mahals may make great tourist attractions but if I’m living as the locals do, I’d take a strip mall with a robust legal aid plan any day.


  1. In the spirit of “better late than never”, I’d like to applaud the spirit and style of this very insightful post. I enjoyed reading it and thinking about it.