Access Board Convenes Courthouse Access Advisory Committee

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Access Board Convenes Courthouse Access Advisory Committee

Jan 1 2004

The US Access Board has convened a committee to address the lack of accessibility in courthouses. The first meeting of the newly formed CAAC was convened at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C. November 4 and 5, 2004. Judges, lawyers, architects, court administrators, equipment manufacturers, as well as representatives of the disability community were in attendance. Marcia Finisdore past state director of PA-SHHH, is the primary representative of SHHH on the committee, while Diana Bender, current state director of PA-SHHH, is the alternate. It is expected that the committee will work for a period of 2 years. At the first meeting, Beth Steward of the US Access Board reviewed the establishment of that board and how it operates. She stated that several laws, such as the ADA, and the guidance established by the Access Board already guarantee courthouse access to anyone with a disability in the courts. However, in reality access is still often problematic in courthouse settings.

Many older courthouses qualify as historical buildings. The oldest operating courthouse in the country is located in Maine and was built in 1790. Providing access for the physically disabled requires extensive renovations that can be difficult to conduct while preserving the historical nature of the building. Even courthouses built after the ADA went into effect do not always comply with the guidelines. This results from either a lack of knowledge of the requirements or because the builders felt that the guidelines were unenforceable. Other new courthouse buildings have required retrofitting in order to provide access after they were completed because of inadequate design. Finances are an important consideration because renovations to provide physical access are very costly. ADA compliance is often not included in local building codes. And alteration is always much more costly and new construction.

The CAAC will focus on courtrooms and other facilities unique to the justice system (not parking lots or rest rooms, for example). Committee members also recognized that education and training would play a vital role in ensuring that courthouses are accessible.

The CAAC is the first committee convened by the Access Board being asked to develop supplemental guidelines beyond the minimum guidelines already in place.

Discussion revolved around the need for education of the many people involved in designing and remodeling courthouses in order to make them accessible. It was decided that the CAAC needs to liaise with organizations such as the State Court Administrators, the National Judicial College and the Conference of Chief Justices and County Managers.

Three subcommittees were formed: Education, Courtroom Access, and Access in Related Courthouse facilities. Eve Hill an attorney with the Western Law Center for Disability Rights and Sam Overton, Deputy Attorney General of California, were elected cochairs.

The committee decided to meet four times a year and the next meeting will take place in January or February 2005 in either Phoenix, AZ or Washington, D.C.