Gavel falling on city courthouse?

The sense of uncertainty regarding the fate of Dunedin's historic courthouse is mounting as months of waiting turn into years of frustration and unease.

But last week's announcement by the Ministry of Justice that the Stuart St courthouse would be fully and indefinitely closed within a matter of weeks was a verdict few could have predicted.

The sense of shock and outrage in the community is palpable.

The building is among countless historic public and private structures nationwide whose fate has hung in the balance since the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, where the catastrophic or partial collapses of many buildings caused major casualties and loss of life.

In the aftermath of the quakes many public buildings were closed, and there was a seismic revolution in terms of building regulations, insurance changes and liability issues.

The hefty price tags of bringing such buildings up to code have sounded many a death knell.

Otago has already suffered. The gavel fell on the historic Oamaru courthouse last May, and it is going through the sale process.

Court proceedings there are now carried out in the considerably less salubrious setting of a portable courthouse in a car park.

And, despite assurances hearings will be retained in Oamaru, fears remain they will inevitably be lost, in the same way other court services were cut as part of a national courts shake-up, in which Balclutha lost its services to Gore and then Dunedin.

Could Dunedin in turn lose its services to Christchurch?

It seems implausible, but it seemed similarly improbable - for aesthetic and practical reasons alike - that the heritage city, the biggest in the South and one of the country's leading centres, could have its courthouse even temporarily closed.

Two years ago, the ministry confirmed it would go ahead with strengthening, and the next announcement the public, court staff and the legal fraternity expected was who would get that contract, and the timeline for the work.

The ministry indicated an announcement was imminent in March last year.

It has been a long wait. The Stuart St building was partially closed in December 2011 after an engineer's assessment found it was unstable, but it continued to house the Dunedin District Court and a range of court services and staff.

A temporary building on High St was modified for use in jury trials and other proceedings.

While the community has adapted through necessity, the set-up is far from ideal, with witnesses and jurors reportedly coming into contact because of the layout and size.

Cost must clearly be the major consideration.

There has been no ministry confirmation, but estimates suggest an upgrade in line with new Building Act requirements would cost between $3 million and $10 million.

Offsetting that is money already spent (and mounting): about $10 million on a refurbishment of the courthouse in 2001, $600,000 on the current earthquake-strengthening design process, and $3 million to refit the High St temporary courthouse.

There are genuine frustrations around lack of information from the ministry, which only fuels fears of a hidden agenda.

The ministry says a business case is still being developed, but there is no time frame for the ''complex'' project.

In the meantime, this newspaper awaits - as is increasingly the case - on behalf of the public the results of an Official Information Act request to establish the reasons behind the closure and what the plans for the future might be.

In the meantime too, the Dunedin City Council is hastily preparing a report on the courthouse to decide on any possible course of action it may take.

The shockwaves are significant, and feel like a further kick in the teeth to a city already feeling marginalised by public service losses and restructures.

It beggars belief one of the city's finest historic buildings, a stone's throw from the CBD, the much-photographed railway station, majestic cathedrals and municipal buildings, and in which some of society's most important work is performed, should be mothballed.

A solution that sees its doors reopened and the building returned to purpose must - and surely can - be found.

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