A spike in homicides cases has put Whanganui's court system under pressure, leaving it "very stretched", a Crown prosecutor says. Abe Leach reports.
In the week before Christmas four homicide cases - at various stages - related to Whanganui were heard in the High Court, while several other homicide-related matters continued to work their way through Whanganui's courthouse.
Whanganui has experienced 10 homicides in the past 18 months. Some offenders have already been sentenced for their crime, while other homicide cases remain before the High Court. One matter is still under police investigation.
Crown prosecutor Chris Wilkinson-Smith says the spike in homicides has left the court "very stretched".
"Normally what the High Court tries to do is give a trial date that's 12 months after the first time the person appears in court on manslaughter or murder," he says.
"For most of this year they've been able to do that, but for the last couple of cases they've had to say the trial will be in 2021."
It has meant Michele Wilkinson-Smith, who is the Crown solicitor for Whanganui, and husband Chris Wilkinson-Smith have had to hire extra staff to cope with the number of cases they're working on.
"The other consequence is, if we suddenly have to have these High Court matters heard within a few months, we've only got one jury trial courtroom [in Whanganui], so that means all the normal District Court trial work gets either squeezed into the gaps or pushed back," Chris Wilkinson-Smith said.
"That's our big limitation. We've got enough lawyers to do trials, but there's just not a physical jury trial-ready room."
The Whanganui courthouse was built in 1966 and opened the following year. It has one jury trial room, a small criminal court room and a family court room.
The building was upgraded in the mid 1990s when a two-storey front entrance was added, but there hasn't been any major upgrade since a new custody area was added in 2008.
Last week, Justice Minister Andrew Little announced Tauranga would get a new courthouse, which will cost $100 million.
The courthouse, which was described as a "courthouse of the future" by the minister, is to be designed in partnership with iwi, the community, judiciary, legal profession, court staff and other court users.
Wilkinson-Smith said the concept would work well in Whanganui.
"We're hoping that [Whanganui is] rising to the top of the list, and it would require iwi, local government, central government and the law society all to get together, so we're hoping that's going to happen, but I'm not aware of any urgent plans that it's going to happen."
In a statement, Ministry of Justice general manager of property Fraser Gibbs said the ministry had an ongoing review of courthouse needs throughout the country.
"We recognise that the [Whanganui] court is under pressure due to the number of cases being heard, including recent homicides.
"Upgrades of our court buildings need to be prioritised across an entire portfolio of 100 buildings.
"There are several larger courts with significant upgrade requirements. As yet, we have not set a specific timeframe for these major upgrades."
Because of the limitations, one of Whanganui's larger homicide trials is already scheduled to be heard in Wellington for two months next year, which Wilkinson-Smith says is not ideal.
"The idea should be the trial should take place in the community where the offence happens and that the jury should come from that area, and that the public can go to their own local courthouse to see the trials.
"All the witnesses who are usually from Whanganui have to be ferried down to Wellington so it's a big cost for everyone."
Wilkinson-Smith said there's nothing in particular to explain why there is up to four times the number of homicides than normal for a city the size and population of Whanganui.
"We've got the same factors that we've always had which are domestic violence, gang influence, methamphetamine use, offenders and victims coming from very deprived backgrounds, but they're factors that are long-standing issues.
"We're hoping 2020 will be a better year and this spike in homicides is [just] a spike and not a new level of homicides because that would be concerning, but I guess we'll have to see where we are in 12 months' time.
"At the moment that rate of 10 or 12 homicides is about the same as South Auckland, and obviously we're only a pool of 60,000 [people].
"That's why it's so extraordinarily out of proportion."
Before entering politics, Whanganui MP Harete Hipango worked as a lawyer in Whanganui for about 27 years.
"The court, agencies and people working within the system are struggling.
"We tend to and have tended to give our best and cope, though that takes its toll with the pressures on all affected and disaffected."