Quake used as 'smokescreen' for court closures

By Helena de Reus, Andrew Ashton

Oamaru lawyer Phil Hope outside the Oamaru District Courthouse, which faces the closure of its court registry office in March. Photo / Andrew Ashton
Oamaru lawyer Phil Hope outside the Oamaru District Courthouse, which faces the closure of its court registry office in March. Photo / Andrew Ashton

Justice officials have been accused of using concerns about building safety to downgrade regional court services in Otago.

The Minister for Courts Chester Borrows yesterday confirmed court registry offices at Oamaru and Balclutha would close in March as both venues are downgraded to hearings-only courts, a move also forced on another seven regional courts nationally.

The decision has provoked anger among southern community leaders with Clutha Mayor Bryan Cadogan saying Balclutha had fought hard to retain the courthouse when it was thought to be a building safety issue.

"There's a lot of frustration that the honesty wasn't there to tell us the true agenda, that we could lose our court services all together. The way they did it lacked integrity."

Mr Cadogan said the process seemed to use earthquake concerns as a "smokescreen" for shifting court services to Gore.

"I'm hearing back on the extra costs and inefficiencies involved with having our court hearings in Gore, and I have yet to see even a shred of evidence of the cost savings from transferring our court."

Mr Borrows said he took exception to his integrity, and the integrity of his department being questioned.

"We have been completely up front with the people of Balclutha. Court services they have are remaining - the court list is being heard in Gore because there are no premises suitable in Balclutha."

Oamaru lawyer Michael DeBuyzer said local courts were more that just "a pure game of maths."

"It's a retrograde step for the local community made by bureaucrats in Wellington who have no real understanding of the role local court staff play.

"It's a body blow for the community. The (court) staff do a lot of dealings with the public face to face in resolving matters that may be court or non-court related, quite apart from having all that substantial local knowledge that adds to the smooth functioning of the court. All of that is going to be lost."

Fellow lawyer Phil Hope said the closure was nothing more than a cost-cutting exercise and had "very little" to do with improving services and the delivery of justice.

Mr Borrows said the changes would help modernise a new more technology-focused court system.

"With courtrooms in many small district courts sitting empty three or four days a week, moving nine courts to hearing-only courts presents an effective way to ensure local hearings are still available in communities where they are needed."

A ministry spokesman said although one management position and "1.8" frontline positions at Oamaru had been disestablished, a further 2.5 frontline positions had been created in Timaru.

Mr Cadogan said he was sad to lose the town's two registrars, who he said would be a loss to the Clutha community.

He has also heard stories of difficulties facing some people trying to get to court in Gore.

The New Zealand Law Society also criticised the changes which would make justice "less accessible" in rural communities.

Society president Jonathan Temm said rural court staff had "considerable standing" within their communities and the restructure would result in the loss of "considerable experience" from smaller centres.

"We're not convinced that the government has really considered the impact of what it is doing on many communities around the country. It needs to look beyond the 'e-vision' to the reality of what it means to suddenly have your access to an important institution removed or reduced.

Waitaki mayor Alex Familton said the closure should not affect efforts to restore the Oamaru courthouse to full usage.

An ongoing assessment of costs to bring the courthouse up to earthquake standards should be completed by the ministry in four months and he was confident it would mean the courthouse would once again hold hearings.

- Otago Daily Times

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