Tauranga's Crown Solicitor says the city's courthouse is not fit for purpose and another top barrister has described facilities at the 54-year-old building as "appalling".
Crown Solicitor Anna Pollett told the Bay of Plenty Times that various issues had been raised by court users "for a considerable time without being addressed".
Partners at two of Tauranga's biggest law firms and other top lawyers in the city have also voiced concerns about the courthouse and the need for change.
However, the answer from Minister of Justice and Minister for Courts Andrew Little about the much-needed upgrades is this: "It won't be in the next year."
Last year, the Bay of Plenty Times revealed there were a raft of issues with the courthouse building on Cameron Rd, including toxic mould and decaying timber frames in the walls.
The Ministry of Justice said at the time that it had fixed leaks and stopped many of the issues worsening, air quality tests were being conducted, a maintenance plan was in place and there was monitoring of water-damaged wall and ceiling linings.
The ministry also said then that the issues would be addressed as part of "a proposed redevelopment of the building".
This month, when asked for an update, the ministry reiterated many of the same action points and said the plans for redevelopment "had not progressed further at this stage".
Its chief operating officer, Carl Crafar, said the proposed redevelopment would take "some time to implement" and that the ministry had put in place interim solutions to ensure the courthouse is run "as efficiently, safely and effectively as possible for all court users".
However, Tauranga's legal community is now speaking out about the delay in progress. Pollett said the courthouse facilities did not adequately support complainants and vulnerable witnesses who were giving evidence in court.
There were also frequent issues with in-court technology; lawyers using the court each day did not have adequate bathroom facilities or areas to meet clients and did not have access to wi-fi, she said.
Pollett said she and the local Law Society representative recently raised safety concerns about blocked access points in the building, which has a single entry/exit policy for security reasons.
She said there is a blocked exit in an area where jurors, witnesses, defendants' supporters, and counsel are required to wait.
Last month, a gang member was jailed for three years after he was caught filming jury members and a witness using his mobile phone during a major drug-dealing trial at the Tauranga courthouse.
Some of the filming took place in that area near the blocked exit outside courtroom four, where, nearby, members of the public were gathering in their role as candidates for jury selection.
More filming took place in a hallway where a detective was talking to a witness.
Pollett said she had met recently with the court manager to discuss the concerns of the criminal bar. She said a stakeholders' meeting would be held in the coming months to discuss the issues and to look at how to best resolve the concerns temporarily.
"All I can really say is that these issues have been raised for a considerable time without being addressed," she said.
"At one stage court users were advised that the Tauranga Court precinct was high on a priority list for an upgrade, second to the Rotorua courthouse. We have recently been advised that this is not the case."
Top Tauranga barrister Rita Nabney, who specialises in employment, criminal and civil law, said her immediate concerns were the "appalling facilities for lawyers".
For example, she said there was only one unisex toilet for all the lawyers in the main courthouse building. The ministry confirmed this. Crafar said: "This is not an ideal situation, but space constrains us."
Nabney said Tauranga not having a high court and not having the capacity for multi-defendant trials meant many cases were held instead in Rotorua or Hamilton. This was "very onerous on everyone, including witnesses and families".
A partner at Holland Beckett Law, David Fraundorfer, who leads the firm's litigation team, said there was also an ongoing issue with noise pollution in the courtrooms, with sounds from the ceiling and other parts of the building regularly interrupting proceedings.
The small size of the courtrooms was an increasing problem, he said.
"If you're ever doing a trial of note, everyone just crams in there. You can have some people who are not the greatest of friends who are sitting immediately side by side because there are just no other seats for them."
Lawyers could also often be seen sitting in the public gallery waiting for a seat.
Fraundorfer said there were also concerns around the cost and logistics (travel, accommodation) of moving cases from Tauranga to Hamilton or Rotorua, which often happens with High Court jury trials because there is not enough room in Tauranga to hold multiple jury trials at once.
And that was not just a cost problem.
Fraundorfer said high court trials – both civil and criminal – were matters of the greatest public interest, including the determination of legal rights, large monetary disputes, serious drugs cases, serious violence cases, murder trials.
"Judges say over and over again there's a public interest in open justice and it's this community that really has an interest in those cases and in seeing this done," he said.
"So I think it's unfortunate for Tauranga that at the moment we have to rely on another community to be our space for justice."
Ultimately, he said, lawyers want to support Tauranga's court staff, who they see doing a great job under difficult circumstances, in a building that is only making their job harder.
Mary Hill, a partner at Tauranga firm Cooney Lees Morgan, who has 20 years' litigation experience and regularly appears in the Environment, District and High courts, said fixing the rotting timber and mould at the Tauranga courthouse was "a given".
"Having just spent time in the Court of Appeal and visited the Supreme Court in Wellington, which are inspiring pieces of contemporary architecture; I think we can do better than just fixing the rot and mould.
"Courthouses are bastions of community justice and are places where everyone should feel safe, secure and comfortable – but why not also a building which expresses the community's architectural and design talents and provides an aesthetic boost for a tired part of the city . . . "
Craig Tuck, a Tauranga-based international human rights lawyer who last year likened some of the malfunctions at the courthouse to a "Monty Python sketch", said the lack of progress was "totally unacceptable inactivity".
Meanwhile, Tauranga MP and Leader of the Opposition Simon Bridges, who was a Crown prosecutor in Tauranga before getting into politics, encouraged the Government "to get on with the job".
"I've worked in these courts and I know how important it is that they are redeveloped."
Crafar said the ministry was aware of disruptions being caused by various sounds throughout the courthouse building, and was looking to address those issues where possible.
He said the ministry was also monitoring the impact of changes to security. After the Christchurch terror attacks, he said, the ministry reviewed its security settings and chose to implement a single point of entry for courthouses.
All court users and visitors are screened and the number of external doors used by staff to gain access was reduced in number. Doors used by lawyers were removed from use.
Crafar said, "exits are not blocked, they are simply not in use".
He said the ministry understood there have been logistical concerns when trials have been moved out of Tauranga.
"The Tauranga courtrooms are not designed to accommodate multiple defendants in the larger jury trials, again, space constrains us. Tauranga is not a gazetted High Court criminal registry; Rotorua is the Gazetted High Court for this area."
Crafar said the Tauranga and Rotorua courthouses "remain key priorities, among other courthouses that need our attention throughout the country".
Minister Little told the Bay of Plenty Times that he had asked the ministry earlier this month for a long-term property plan across the court network about which courts needed to completely rebuilt and which just needed to be fixed up.
Asked if he had a date of when he was expecting to get that plan, he said: "Look, I can't give you a precise time."
He said his advice was that the plan was "well under development".
Little said it was a big piece of work involving not just the Ministry of Justice, but Treasury and others and so was "a pretty convoluted process".
He acknowledged that the delay would be frustrating for users of the courts, but said these were big investments that needed to take into account things like forecast population growth.
Little said this also had to be seen in a context of other Government priorities too – for example, "a massive backlog" in hospital building development and upkeep, and school development and upkeep.
Asked if construction work on the Tauranga courthouse would start in the next year he said "No".
"And I can't be precise about when that will be."
Little said once the property plan was finished and financial commitments were made, he could be more specific and clearer with users of the court about when they can expect improvement.