Justice also has physical foundations

Part of the Dunedin Courthouse. Photo by ODT.
Part of the Dunedin Courthouse. Photo by ODT.
Tradition is important in the rule of law and buildings such as the historic Dunedin Courthouse bolster that tradition, writes Michael Reason. 

The court of justice has a crucial role in a democracy.

It must serve the interests of justice by upholding the rule of law.

The decision of where it ought to be housed should be determined by what premises best support the rule of law.

We ultimately experience the effect of the law via the court.

Although it is said the role of the court is to interpret the law, in fact its role is to deliver justice.

Why is the physical home of the court important?

It is helpful to first consider what a court of justice actually ''is''.

To paraphrase the words of our Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias spoken to the New Zealand Lawyers' Society in London in 2014: a court is more than the judges, the barristers and solicitors present.

A court is its tradition.

Put this way, it's possible to see apparently arcane ceremonies, regalia and dress in their context.

And why is tradition important?

With laws, judges and governments like ours, why bother preserving ceremonies, rituals, traditions and buildings that have led to the rule that no-one is above the law?

The simple answer is that advocates, judges, court staff and clients seeking justice are merely human.

We benefit from constant reminders and we can all, despite our differences, agree on the basic principles.

Although we may disagree with everything our opponent and their advocate may say and we disagree with the judge's ruling, we can still respect the process and accept that following the exhaustion of the appeals process the result represents the law of the land.

When the outcome is finally determined it will be respected.

This result differs vastly from judicial systems in which courts are susceptible to bribes, the influence of politics and the general expectation a decision of a court that is out of the ordinary or outside its traditions and precedents will not be noticed.

As contradictory as it may seem, the Anglo-Saxon rule-of-law tradition, even including its buildings, are a reminder that we operate within a finely balanced tradition of freedom from tyranny fought for to preserve the rights of the common man and woman.

When we surrender any element of these traditions, such as a building, we must only do so if the decision can be justified in accordance with the principles of the rule of law.

For example, if we as a city or region had to decide whether to dispense justice in a beautiful, inspiring and imposing building designed for the purpose, where great decisions in the tradition had been taken in the past, or whether to do so in a bland utilitarian warehouse or a branch of a supermarket, would the result help or hinder the ''court'' to respect its traditions of the delivery of justice?

Would our decision enable the users of the court to accept the process of solemnly and in good faith finding justice in our particular case even if the result was not to our liking or personal benefit or made at a time of crisis?

If the preservation of a beautiful historic building could not be justified for other reasons such as the preservation of heritage for its own or tourism's sake, the decision to relocate would at least be made for reasons that could be respected in accordance with the principles underpinning the administration of justice.

• Michael Reason is an Otago University and London School of Economics law graduate. He is a company director and barrister based in London.

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