Change to court causes concern

By John Maslin

Imminent changes to the operating hours of the Marton District Court will have an unnecessary and significant social impact on the town, according to a local businessman.

Graeme Platt, who owns Platts Pharmacy in nearby Bulls, said the claims by Courts Minister Chester Borrows that the changes would modernise the process, were questionable.

On March 22, the Marton court becomes a hearing court, which means it will operate about once a week, in contrast to its current Monday-to-Friday opening hours.

When he announced the pending changes, Courts Minister Borrows said the 2.6 full-time equivalent staff members - one manager and 1.6 FTE front-line workers - would be out of a job, with staff at Whanganui District Court travelling to Marton when the court sits. The court's paperwork and counter services would also be handled in Wanganui.

Mr Platt said the impact of these changes deserved greater debate.

"I'd question whether these changes are going to mean any savings, as the Minister claims, in the long-run," he said.

He said as well as bringing a court staff member and a security officer from Wanganui to Marton once a week, there was also the matter of getting locals across to Wanganui District Court.

"At the moment, if someone is arrested they appear in the Marton court and usually before a judicial JP. But under this new scheme they will have be taken to Wanganui for a bail hearing.

"They'll be taken over to Wanganui by Marton police staff. But what if they have to wait around for an hour or two to have their case heard? Are the police going to have to wait there and bring these people back to Marton?

"If that's the case, then what possible savings are going to be made?" Mr Platt asked.

He said Marton was a depressed town, but the district court currently provided a valuable service for the community.

"A lot of locals don't have transport, so where do they go to get the sort of basic information courts dispense? It's no good saying it's available online, because not everyone has got access to the internet either."

He said he believed the savings would be minimal because the change was offset by social implications as well as putting pressure on police resources.

"And, over the years, court staff in Marton have provided services way beyond their core business," he said.

Mr Platt said an attempt was made to close the Marton District Court some years ago, but then Rangitikei MP Simon Power stepped in and the plan was shelved.

"I'm disappointed our mayor [Chalky Leary] has done nothing to stop this happening," he said.

"This is a very serious blow to a small community. The minister needs to front up and answer some questions about these changes," Mr Platt said.

Court staff throughout New Zealand were told in October of proposed restructuring that would affect about 200 jobs.

On that same day Mr Borrows announced the closure of four district courts as "part of efforts to modernise court operations".

But he told the Chronicle that bail hearings could easily be handled at the Marton police station if necessary.

"In more serious cases, those bail hearings would take place in Wanganui or Palmerston North, as they do now," he said.

Mr Borrows said, as a former policeman and lawyer, the issues Mr Platt raised were those he raised with the Justice Ministry officials before going to Cabinet with the planned changes.

"But if there are problems that arise then we will work around them to sort things out," he said.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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