Court users forced to hitch to Gore

The Balclutha courthouse, which has been closed for a year. Photo by Helena de Reus.
The Balclutha courthouse, which has been closed for a year. Photo by Helena de Reus.

Balclutha court users are hitch-hiking to Gore to attend criminal hearings, and Clutha Mayor Bryan Cadogan says something has to be done to fix transport issues.

Mr Cadogan said the shifting of criminal court from Balclutha to Gore was done without consulting the community, and made it difficult for both criminals and their victims to get to court.

''If our court services have to be moved, they should be moved to Dunedin, or a bus put on to transport people to Gore.''

Balclutha criminal court hearings have been held in Gore since last December when the courthouse was deemed an earthquake risk.

Mr Cadogan said the shifting of court services to Gore penalised those using the court system for something they had no control over.

''We have no direct affinity with Gore. It truly is very difficult for people to find a ride there. Where is the criminality when a person gets additionally penalised because they were unable to hitch a ride?

''I've lived here all my life and while I know of many people that travel to Dunedin every day, I know of no-one going to Gore.''

He said the whole judicial structure in the country's towns was being withdrawn and diminished.

One court user, who wanted to remain anonymous, told the Otago Daily Times that on Monday at 6am, he finished a 12-hour shift in Clydevale. He spent the next two and a-half hours trying to hitch a ride from Clydevale to Gore via Balclutha.

When he finally got a ride to Balclutha, he went to both the police station and registry office to tell them his problem and try to get some advice on what to do.

''I was told that there would be a warrant out for me if I didn't make it to court.''

The man said he just wanted to get to court and get the matter resolved.

''It's not fair. I don't see any reason why we should have to travel to Gore for court. We have people who have no transport, and it's not easy getting a ride to Gore. There's no buses, and hardly anyone from Balclutha travels to Gore.''

During a sitting of the Balclutha District Court in Gore in August, Judge John Macdonald sympathised with the difficulties some Balclutha people faced in trying to get to their scheduled appearances in Gore. He asked the court how someone who was disqualified from driving was going to get to a court date in Gore.

''The court has been taken away from them in Balclutha.''

When the ODT asked Courts Minister Chester Borrows how court users were to get to Gore, he said there were no transport issues.

''There's every indication people are getting to court . . . if they are hitch-hiking, that is their call.''

On Wednesday Mr Borrows confirmed court registry offices in Oamaru and Balclutha would close in March as both venues are downgraded to hearings-only courts, a move also imposed on another seven regional courts nationally.

Like Balclutha, the Oamaru courthouse has been closed since November 2011, when it was deemed an earthquake risk, and there has still been no word if the ministry will pay for the building to be upgraded.

At present court hearings take place in the town's opera house, which has been described as ''unsuitable'' both by local lawyers and Mr Borrows.

Original estimates from the Ministry of Justice in October claimed it would cost more than $5 million to earthquake strengthen the 129-year-old courthouse.

Those claims caused outrage in Oamaru, when Waitaki Mayor Alex Familton suggested the work could be done for a 10th of the $5 million suggested, prompting the ministry to begin a full engineers assessment of how much it would cost at the end of November. The assessment, which is being carried out in conjunction with Opus and the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, is expected to take another four months to complete.

Two other courthouses, at Feilding and Upper Hutt, which had been also been closed as earthquake risks, were closed permanently earlier this week.