Rotorua's "extremely frustrating" wait for a courthouse upgrade continues.
It's been two years since the Ministry of Justice confirmed plans for a Rotorua courthouse overhaul.
In July 2018, commercial and property general manager Fraser Gibbs hoped construction work would begin in late 2019, subject to final approval, building consent and tendering.
But no work has started on the site and no start date has been set.
"Due to the complexities of the project, including the need to keep the court operating, the upgrade is likely to take at least three years to complete [once work starts]," Gibbs said.
Rotorua lawyers and court staff have held longstanding concerns about the state of the facilities at the District and High Court building and Māori Land Court Hauora House.
They are "most definitely" hindering justice and "less than adequate", in Ngaroma Tahana's view.
The Kāhui Legal partner, who was formerly a Crown prosecutor, has worked on trials in the Rotorua courthouse that have been adjourned because of rainwater leaking through the ceiling, and broken down audio-visual link and microphone sound systems.
She said "a classic example" was when a trial had to be adjourned while an electrician carried out emergency repairs in a courtroom.
"Water was actually leaking through one of the light fittings ... it became a health and safety issue."
When court cases were unexpectedly delayed it created "undue stress" for witnesses, defendants, complainants and victims, court staff, lawyers and whānau, Tahana said.
On top of this, there were not enough meeting rooms for lawyers to meet with their clients and supporters, she said.
This means lawyers sometimes have to take instructions from clients in the public gallery or in hallways, which is "less than ideal and not appropriate".
The lack of space also put complainants and victims at risk of intimidation and upset - especially in sexual abuse and gang-related cases - as it is often "unavoidable" that they are close to defendants in the courtroom or meeting areas.
Tahana also cited a lack of space for lawyers addressing the court, forcing some to sit in the jury seats and address the judge from there.
Lack of Wi-Fi access is also a problem, often forcing lawyers to rely on hard-copy documents, she said.
Overall, in her opinion, it was "extremely disappointing" that upgrade work hadn't started yet.
"I am wondering why they [the Ministry of Justice] are not starting from scratch?"
Crown prosecutor Amanda Gordon feels just as strongly.
The Gordon & Pilditch partner described the prolonged wait for improved Rotorua facilities as "extremely frustrating" and said the current situation was hindering the justice process.
"A number of courts around the country are old and no longer fit for purpose but Rotorua, as a very busy court, would be one of the worst I have experienced."
She said the ongoing lack of courtroom space meant trials could not be scheduled as promptly as lawyers would like.
In November 2018 defendants were waiting up to 18 months for trials due to the lack of capacity in Rotorua.
Gordon also said the courthouse areas for complainants waiting to give evidence were "insufficient" and "inadequate" and the Rotorua technology was "well below what is required for trials".
"Often jurors have to leave the jury box to watch footage played on screens that are too small and poorly located within the courtroom, or equipment constantly breaks down partway through a complainant giving evidence."
She also added that the Ministry of Justice was having "to buy small column heaters" to heat the courthouse's cold rooms because the air conditioning and heat pump system is broken.
"Apparently [it is] too expensive to fix while the 'possible upgrade' is planned."
She said the upgrade needed to be extensive and "in the meantime, all the [justice] participants have to put up with the less than adequate facilities".
In Public Service Association [PSA] national secretary Glenn Barclay's opinion: "Everyone onsite knows improvements are urgently needed, whether through significant refurbishment or relocation."
He said the union's members at the courthouse "work hard every day in a cold old building with no Wi-Fi and no staff elevators between floors".
"The PSA and our onsite delegates have met with courthouse senior management and the Ministry of Justice, and this issue has been discussed. It will remain near the top of the agenda until solutions are implemented."
An NZME reporter witnessed water leaking from the ceiling of District Courtroom 4 during heavy rainfall on the afternoon of June 20.
The ministry's commercial and property general manager, Fraser Gibbs, said there was "a leak in the cell area caused by a blocked gutter and another leak outside Courtroom 3".
"We are waiting on a report of the possible cause."
Part of the main public stairwell was taped off that afternoon and when Gibbs was asked if that was also due to leaks, he said the ministry was "investigating the issue".
The entire courthouse will be refurbished - including added courtroom capacity, enhanced security and improved judicial chambers and office space - in the proposed revamp, he said.
Gibbs would not reveal the budget for the works and said NZME's request for copies of concept designs needed to be made under the Official Information Act.
He said the daily operations of the buildings may be disrupted by the upgrade and "temporary arrangements will be put in place".
He would not say whether the option of building a new facility from scratch at a different site was being considered.
"Any property rebuilds, or significant work projects, are subject to budget approval. The ministry is working to ensure the Rotorua Courthouse can operate as efficiently, safely and effectively as possible for all court users."
Gibbs added that "interim solutions, including minor roofing work, was completed late last year".
"Further roofing works were planned for early 2020 but have been delayed due to Covid-19 and recent weather conditions. Additional security upgrades are due to be completed at the end of September.
"Increased capacity for two recently appointed coroners in Hauora House has also been completed."
In December last year, the Government announced a "courthouse of the future" would be built in Tauranga with a $100 million price tag.
NZME had previously reported a raft of issues with the building including toxic mould and decaying timber frames in the walls.