Dunedin court's future unclear

Donna Buckingham.
Donna Buckingham.
The Ministry of Justice can give no commitment court services will return to the historic part of the Dunedin Courthouse.

Asked under the Official Information Act whether the closed parts of the building would be used again for court business, general manager for district courts Tony Fisher said the ministry was still considering options for strengthening work.

"Until these are assessed, I cannot answer this question."

The Otago branch of the New Zealand Law Society says if the building were to close permanently, the branch would be "deeply saddened" by the loss of its place of practice for more than 100 years.

"Our history is inextricably intertwined with its footprint," branch president Associate Prof Donna Buckingham said.

The branch would not take an official position until it knew the outcome of technical reports and expert advice to the ministry on strengthening the building, she said.

Part of the bluestone courthouse was closed after a December 2011 engineer's report found the tower was at high risk of falling in an earthquake.

Family and civil court proceedings were relocated to another central Dunedin building, while Dunedin jury trials have been held in Invercargill for the past year and will not return to Dunedin until mid-2013, when the fit-out of a further building is completed.

Prof Buckingham said the closure had been difficult on everyone, not just the lawyers involved.

For those involved in criminal litigation, in particular, it had been "extremely wearying" in terms of organising witnesses and experts to get to Invercargill for jury trials.

"I cannot, of course, speak for the judiciary, the court staff or the defendants involved. But this is a collective problem and it sits uneasily with the long-held value that a person is tried by their peers in their own community."

Given the ministry saw a "court" as a set of services, it was not surprising its first priority was to provide a full set of court services back in Dunedin as soon as possible.

If the building were to close permanently, the Otago branch would be deeply saddened.

The Otago Daily Times asked the ministry for all reports and assessments to date related to seismic risk and strengthening work for the building, and was directed to the seismic assessment released at the time of the courthouse's partial closure.

Mr Fisher said a full engineering report was prepared for the ministry in confidence, and declined to release it.

When the building was closed, ministry officials said the work would take a year and the seismic assessment estimated the strengthening work required to bring the building up to 67% of code would cost $4.1 million.

The costs so far include $600,000 to relocate to John Wickliffe House, about $6000 for the relocation of staff and documents, $169,462 for the construction of a waiting room and toilets in the modern part of the courthouse, where criminal courts are still being run, and $51,708 for seismic assessments and design options.

The legal community believe those and other costs related to running Dunedin trials in Invercargill are likely to bring the total to at least $2 million so far.

debbie.porteous@odt.co.nz

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