Justice in the provinces

It is not hard to see why the people of Balclutha and the surrounding districts are fired up about their court services.

They have been stripped and little remains. Also understandable is the upset in Oamaru. Its situation, at least at this stage, might not be quite as dire, but the downgrade is savage. The Balclutha courthouse, deemed an earthquake risk, was closed last November and will not reopen as a courthouse.

It could well be abandoned. At the same time, registry and administrative services, run from a weatherboard building next door, were taken from the town. Criminal hearings have been in Gore, while family court and disputes tribunal cases have been heard in the St John Ambulance Hall.

This, Courts Minister Chester Borrows announced this week, is the way matters will continue. The people around Balclutha may have some affinity with Gore, but they are much more likely to look north to Dunedin and have been, fundamentally, abandoned. There is little left of justice being served where it is most effective and where it matters most: in the local community.

One of the issues with such decisions is that their cost-saving focus can be too narrow. Sure, money is saved on staff and overhead costs for five days a week at the registry/administration office and this might amount to considerably more than the additional administration burden placed on somewhere else. But what about all the extra costs and time for South Otago police in going to Gore?

What, too, about all the costs and inconvenience for witnesses, victims, lawyers and those accused of offences? Cost reductions in one place often lead to additional costs somewhere else.

Naturally, the belief that earthquake risk was a convenient excuse for ''rationalisation'' is widespread, especially because the earthquake bugbear has also arisen in Oamaru.

The courthouse there was deemed too risky and the extraordinary price tag of $5 million was given as the estimate to fix it. Waitaki Mayor Alex Familton suggested the work could be done for a 10th of that and an engineers' assessment is under way. In the meantime, registry services shifted elsewhere in Oamaru but will now close from next March and be run from Timaru.

That will be at major inconvenience and cost. And while there is no word if the 129-year-old courthouse will be strengthened, at least most criminal and other hearings will be in Oamaru. They shifted to Timaru temporarily before coming back to the town, being held at the Opera House. Oamaru will be on guard in case they are transferred permanently back to Timaru at some future date.

Mr Burrows argues changes were necessary as the crime rate was at a 30-year low, the district courts system needed to be brought into line ''with public expectations of convenient and accessible services'' and courts needed to be modernised through greater use of technology, better processes and more efficient use of infrastructure''.

He could also have pointed out those in a sizeable town like Cromwell have to trek to Alexandra or those in Wanaka across to Queenstown.

And it is understandable, inevitable and necessary in many cases that new technology should be used to improve court efficiency. Mr Borrows said this week two recent trials of tablet computers in courts were demonstrating the huge efficiencies that could be made over using ''volumes of paper''.

As the Public Service Association has said, the revamp came at a cost to provincial New Zealand, with the loss of about 35 specialist jobs and access to essential policing and legal services. PSA National Secretary Richard Wagstaff also said the changes would penalise those without computer access or the means to travel long distances.

The comments of Mr Burrows will not wash with the regional communities themselves. They are, once again, being hurt by the withdrawal of government services, a pain felt around New Zealand with the closure of administrative service at seven other provincial courts.


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