It is not hard to see why the people of Balclutha and the
surrounding districts are fired up about their court
They have been stripped and little remains. Also
understandable is the upset in Oamaru. Its situation, at
least at this stage, might not be quite as dire, but the
downgrade is savage. The Balclutha courthouse, deemed an
earthquake risk, was closed last November and will not reopen
as a courthouse.
It could well be abandoned. At the same time, registry and
administrative services, run from a weatherboard building
next door, were taken from the town. Criminal hearings have
been in Gore, while family court and disputes tribunal cases
have been heard in the St John Ambulance Hall.
This, Courts Minister Chester Borrows announced this week, is
the way matters will continue. The people around Balclutha
may have some affinity with Gore, but they are much more
likely to look north to Dunedin and have been, fundamentally,
abandoned. There is little left of justice being served where
it is most effective and where it matters most: in the local
One of the issues with such decisions is that their
cost-saving focus can be too narrow. Sure, money is saved on
staff and overhead costs for five days a week at the
registry/administration office and this might amount to
considerably more than the additional administration burden
placed on somewhere else. But what about all the extra costs
and time for South Otago police in going to Gore?
What, too, about all the costs and inconvenience for
witnesses, victims, lawyers and those accused of offences?
Cost reductions in one place often lead to additional costs
Naturally, the belief that earthquake risk was a convenient
excuse for ''rationalisation'' is widespread, especially
because the earthquake bugbear has also arisen in Oamaru.
The courthouse there was deemed too risky and the
extraordinary price tag of $5 million was given as the
estimate to fix it. Waitaki Mayor Alex Familton suggested the
work could be done for a 10th of that and an engineers'
assessment is under way. In the meantime, registry services
shifted elsewhere in Oamaru but will now close from next
March and be run from Timaru.
That will be at major inconvenience and cost. And while there
is no word if the 129-year-old courthouse will be
strengthened, at least most criminal and other hearings will
be in Oamaru. They shifted to Timaru temporarily before
coming back to the town, being held at the Opera House.
Oamaru will be on guard in case they are transferred
permanently back to Timaru at some future date.
Mr Burrows argues changes were necessary as the crime rate
was at a 30-year low, the district courts system needed to be
brought into line ''with public expectations of convenient
and accessible services'' and courts needed to be modernised
through greater use of technology, better processes and more
efficient use of infrastructure''.
He could also have pointed out those in a sizeable town like
Cromwell have to trek to Alexandra or those in Wanaka across
And it is understandable, inevitable and necessary in many
cases that new technology should be used to improve court
efficiency. Mr Borrows said this week two recent trials of
tablet computers in courts were demonstrating the huge
efficiencies that could be made over using ''volumes of
As the Public Service Association has said, the revamp came
at a cost to provincial New Zealand, with the loss of about
35 specialist jobs and access to essential policing and legal
services. PSA National Secretary Richard Wagstaff also said
the changes would penalise those without computer access or
the means to travel long distances.
The comments of Mr Burrows will not wash with the regional
communities themselves. They are, once again, being hurt by
the withdrawal of government services, a pain felt around New
Zealand with the closure of administrative service at seven
other provincial courts.