Law alumni plead courthouse case

Otago law alumni have spoken out from around the world, calling on the Government to do what needs to be done to save and return full court services to Dunedin's historic courthouse.

The calls came after University of Otago faculty of law dean Prof Mark Henaghan wrote to the law school's alumni, detailing the building's plight.

The courthouse was deemed an earthquake risk in 2011 and mothballed completely in May this year. To date, no decisions about the building or work on strengthening it have been made.

Ministry of Justice cost estimates for required work have ranged from less than $5 million to more than $10 million.

In the meantime, the ministry has spent nearly $7 million turning an office building in High St into a temporary court facility which it leases, with other temporary facilities in the city, for almost $600,000 a year.

The ministry is still paying more than $80,000 a year in rates for the Stuart St building.

Prof Henaghan said he asked for the law school's alumni to comment on the situation to ''help strengthen our case for this important cause''.

He told the Otago Daily Times yesterday the response had been ''overwhelmingly positive''.

Within a week, more than 100 replies had been received from New Zealand and around the world, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada and Kuwait. Not one negative response had been received.

He said the replies reflected the ''very strong sentiments across the profession'' for the return of court services to the Stuart St site.

He called the courthouse ''one of the most iconic historical buildings in New Zealand'', but said its value to Dunedin and New Zealand ran far deeper than its appearance.

The administration of justice was a serious business and was best performed in a serious, purpose-built space, he said.

''People when they come to court need to feel respectful of the court itself. It's a formal occasion. There's a sense of occasion. You remove that and you remove a sense of what the law is about.''

Trying to administer justice in a makeshift facility like that in High St was not the same, he said.

''It feels artificial and it detracts from the process that's going on.''

A courthouse needed to show everyone involved in a court sitting had their place, Prof Henaghan said. Dunedin's historic courthouse did that.

''We do serious business here; people go to court for serious business. I know judges from around the country, I've spoken to many of them, and they love sitting in that [historic] court.''

He said the Stuart St site also housed one of the best-designed family courts in the country. Justice Minister Amy Adams said in a statement last night her desire, intention and expectation was ''that we want to see the historic courthouse building strengthened and returned to, and that hasn't changed''.

''The building is an incredible historic building and a wonderful treasure for Dunedin, but it creates a very difficult, complex and expensive process in terms of maintaining that historic character while creating a safe work environment.

''A decision will have to wait until a business case has been developed.''


What the alumni said

- I have appeared in various courts in New Zealand and in other countries. The standout court building of them all is, of course, Dunedin

- The law depends upon society believing in its authority, so the Government should consider the message that it is sending by housing judicial functions to a building that does not remind people of this important fact

- It would be senseless and a great shame to let this fantastic, purpose-built facility go to waste

Prof Mark Henaghan said many respondents worked in high-placed roles and had given their support to the courthouse with the understanding their names would stay private.


 

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