Court is in session

Court services may return to the Oamaru courthouse in lower Thames St early next year. Photo:...
The historic Oamaru courthouse. Photo: Daniel Birchfield
Justice has finally been served in Oamaru.

The first sitting in the town's reopened 136-year-old courthouse this week was an occasion to celebrate for the North Otago community, the Waitaki District Council and the legal fraternity. Whether those appearing on criminal charges on Wednesday were so excited is a moot point.

It has been a long road for supporters of the historic building since it was mothballed in 2011, and there are sound arguments - and no lack of good lawyers to construct them - to be made that eight years was too long to wait for what seemed a common-sense solution.

However, this is not a time to be looking back with feelings of frustration and disappointment.

It is not particularly worth revisiting the beginnings of this issue, when the Oamaru courthouse was one of the scores of buildings around New Zealand, in the wake of the Christchurch disaster, deemed to be earthquake-prone, and the government of the day presented an alarming report that getting the building up to scratch could cost as much as $6million.

There is no sense bemoaning the length of time it took to push past that spurious argument, though there would be nothing wrong in highlighting the tireless work of prominent Oamaru lawyer Bill Dean, who lobbied to keep court services in Oamaru and commissioned an independent study to utterly debunk the Ministry of Justice's cost estimate, and praising the efforts of the council, which pursued the project (costing about $900,000, paid for from a council endowment fund) and got it over the line.

And it is not time to lament the lost years, when Oamaru court services were firstly transferred to Timaru, then held in the Oamaru Opera House, then crammed into an entirely unsuitable facility - the late and not remotely lamented "port-a-court" - in a car park at the back of a pub.

It is time to express huge satisfaction at this verdict. Oamaru has retained its court services and protected one of its fabulous Forrester and Lemon-designed buildings, and eased fears either or both could have been permanently lost.

Janet Frame's "kingdom by the sea" is, for the most part, a peaceful place. Crime rates are relatively low, and as a result, court is only required to sit about once every two weeks.

But this has never really, at least not solely, been about dispensing punishment to those who have transgressed. Having a smart, functional courthouse is one of the significant factors in the soul of a town. It is a symbol of justice and community.

Oamaru has, in many respects, set the standard in preserving and treasuring its heritage buildings, and the town's embracing of its Victorian past has enhanced its charm and made it a destination. How pleasing to see another significant building retained and protected.

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