Fears court services being centralised

The Dunedin courthouse. Photo by Gregor Richardson.
The Dunedin courthouse. Photo by Gregor Richardson.
Jacinda Ardern.
Jacinda Ardern.

The abandoning of New Zealand's earthquake-vulnerable courthouses could be masking a strategy centralising regional court services to larger cities, Labour says.

The party's justice spokeswoman, Jacinda Ardern, told the Otago Daily Times she was ''extremely sceptical'' about the process around Dunedin's historic courthouse, citing falling courts budgets and Ministry of Justice ''doublespeak'' as warning flags.

Five of New Zealand's seven courthouses classed as earthquake risks in 2011 have been closed permanently, despite original indications they would be strengthened and reopened.

Of the seven courthouses - in Balclutha, Dunedin, Oamaru, Rangiora, Upper Hutt, Masterton and Feilding - all but Dunedin and Masterton had been abandoned.

Masterton's courthouse had been reopened, at a cost of $3.5 million. Dunedin's courthouse was still in limbo.

Some of the abandoned court buildings had been sold and all but Dunedin's had lost some or all court services to larger centres, Ms Ardern said.

That pattern left her worried for the future of Dunedin's court services.

''There's some doublespeak going on here.

''If you close a court for safety reasons, that should mean you fix it, and reopen it again. That's not what the Government has done,'' Ms Ardern said.

Everybody wanted safe buildings, she said, but the Government had used that ''as cover to close courts permanently''.

''You can't tell me that there isn't one safe building in Rangiora or Balclutha that could have housed court services, and that they had to move to Christchurch or Dunedin for good,'' Ms Ardern said.

Earlier this month, Justice Minister Amy Adams told the ODT she could not guarantee court services would return to the building, that all cost estimates she had seen were ''north of $10 million'' and that a business case to set out options for possible work was still being developed.

Yesterday, she told Parliament's justice and electoral committee the Government's intention was ''absolutely'' to strengthen and return to Dunedin's historic courthouse.

However, a final decision by Cabinet had to wait until a business case was developed, and costings were reworked in light of recent information from the Department of Building and Housing about seismic standards.

''The desire, intention and expectation is that we want to see that building strengthened and returned to. That hasn't changed.''

She also rejected Ms Ardern's suggestion courthouses were being closed under the ''guise'' of earthquake strengthening, saying that was a ''cynical categorisation''.

''We take the safety of employees and people using the court system pretty seriously .. . Where our staff and the people were using our courts that posed a risk, the ministry has taken the decision, I think rightly, to move out.''

Ms Ardern said money could be the issue, as courts budgets were forecast to have dropped 4.4% from 2009 to 2016.

The Government had ''openly claimed'' in 2013 it was to strengthen Dunedin's courthouse, calling it ''historic and important'', she said.

''What's changed? The courts budget certainly has. And there's no doubt a decrease in the budget for courts in real terms has had an impact. That impact appears to be regional court closures.''

When the Ministry of Justice announced the initial court closures in 2011, acting deputy secretary for courts Robert Pigou said indications were the programme of remedial work for all the at-risk buildings, except Dunedin's, which was still to be properly assessed, would cost about $2 million and take up to 12 months to complete.

Yesterday ministry general manager commercial and property Fraser Gibbs said those ''preliminary seismic assessments'' were designed to assess risk and approximate costs.

More detailed investigations followed, which provided more accurate results, he said.

''Additionally, as a result of the experiences in Christchurch, engineers' understanding of how unreinforced masonry heritage buildings respond to earthquakes has changed and so has the possible solutions that need to be employed.''

Four weeks ago, the ODT asked the ministry to state, categorically, that it had no intention of abandoning the historic building or to centralise some of Dunedin's court services in Christchurch.

The ministry said it would need 20 working days to answer those and other questions, and extended that deadline by another 15 working days.



The courts

Balclutha: Closed, services to Dunedin.

Dunedin: Mothballed, investigations ongoing, services transferred to temporary facility.

Oamaru: Closed, some services operating from temporary building, others moved to Dunedin.

Rangiora: Closed, services moved to Christchurch.

Upper Hutt: Closed, services moved to Lower Hutt.

Feilding: Closed, services moved to Palmerston North.

Masterton: Strengthened, services retained.


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