It will come as a surprise to no one that after "consultation" the Ministry of Justice has decided to permanently close the Upper Hutt District Court. The reason for this is a supposed earthquake risk and now the latest argument - a falling crime rate. yesterday (12/12/12) Courts Minister Borrows issued a press release justifying shutting some Courthouses and making a large number of staff redundant on the basis of a falling crime rate, which is largely due to a directive to Police to issue pre-charge warnings, “Crime is at a thirty-year low and the number of criminal summary cases has dropped 25 per cent since 2008/09. The Government is taking the opportunity this provides to improve the administration of New Zealand’s District Courts to bring them in to line with public expectations of convenient and accessible services,” says Mr Borrows." So in other words offending still occurs, but it has just been redefined.
In reality "consultation" is a joke. Rather what this Government does, is it makes a decision, delays announcing the decision, but invites input from effected parties, ignores the input then does what they wanted to do anyway.
It is interesting to me that the cost to repair my local courthouse (Upper Hutt) was originally stated as being $250,000, Minister Borrows at a recent meeting then said that figure was "peer reviewed" and the new figure was $750,000. I note no competitive tender has ever been sought on the cost of repair and no engineer report confirming the size of the earthquake risk or what is required for rectification work has ever been released.
The closure of any local court is a backward step for a community. People go to a court to get documents witnessed, affidavits sworn and to file proceedings. A woman seeking a protection order from an abusive partner will often go there to seek help. Ordinary people wanting to get a tenancy dispute sorted or to seek a hearing in the Disputes Tribunal will go to their local court.
This is part of what we call, "access to justice." People feel they can access justice, because they can go to the court in their local community and seek help.
More than that it is a sign of community life, and the vitality of a town or city. The salaries of staff and lawyers are spent in the community and the coffee shops cafes, stationary stores and a multitude of other businesses. These decisions to close our local courts are being made by faceless functionaries at the behest of a Minister and Government who have no regard for local communities.
Local court staff know local people. They deal with people face to face and over the years they acquire substantial local knowledge which assists with the smooth functioning of their courts. Sadly with redundancies all this local knowledge is going to be lost.
Jonathan Temm, president of the Law Society recognises this. In a statement he released yesterday he said:
"Court staff in rural communities particularly are often seen as neutral officials, with considerable standing in the community. Closures, re-designations and restructuring would mean many people with considerable experience were lost from smaller centres. The courthouse itself is an very visible symbol of our justice system and its presence ensures that communities see justice being done. It shows that justice is there for everyone and is accessible to everyone.”
“Many of the regions which are most affected by the changes have thinly-spread and widely dispersed populations. Getting to and from court and the court registry will become far more difficult and costly. Justice will become less accessible.”
“People in places like Dargaville, Balclutha, Upper Hutt and Te Awamutu have shown their dismay at what will happen when their courthouse services are downgraded. The Law Society believes there has been inadequate consultation and a failure to look beyond the financial savings to the more important issue of maintaining access to justice."
Upper Hutt has a population of around 40,000. Our local representative is Labour MP Chris Hipkins. I note that the Waipukurau District Court has been granted a reprieve, this is understandable after all it is in a National electorate and Waipukurau has a huge population of 4005.
When the Ministry first announced the concerns over earthquake strengthening they sent out an email, which contained typical Government doublespeak. I attach it below:
On Thu, Apr 26, 2012 at 12:47 PM, Wayne Guppy wrote:
Thanks Michael I am following this up with the MinisterWayneFrom: Michael Bott
Sent: Wednesday, 25 April 2012 9:12
To: Wayne Guppy
Subject: Fwd: Upper Court to Close?Hi Wayne,I thought I would copy this to you for your information.Kind regardsMichael Bott
I have just received this update regarding the Upper Hutt courthouse. It appears that reopening this Court is low on the Minister's and his Minsitry's priorities. Further the final sentence (below) appears to be somewhat evasive as to whether Upper Hutt will retain its Court. Some people from within the Ministry that I have spoken to indicate that unofficially the Ministry have wanted to close Upper Hutt Court for sometime and the earthquake risk provides a convenient excuse. You might like to follow this up.RegardsMichael Bott"Upper Hutt Courthouse
Immediately following the announcement of the temporary closure of the Upper Hutt Courthouse, all Upper Hutt hearings were transferred to Lower Hutt District Court. Upper Hutt court staff were relocated to office space at the Lower Hutt District Court.
Current operational arrangements will continue for the medium to long term while planning, prioritising and implementation of the Ministry's courthouse remedial work plan is completed.
The Minister met with a group of 23 local lawyers on 28 March 2012 to hear their views and discuss the impacts of the Upper Hutt Courthouse closure. The Minister has subsequently written to the group's representative regarding their concerns, including clarifying sitting days and times for both courts.
Floor plan options provided by architects, which look at ways to better utilise the office space at the Lower Hutt Courthouse for both the Lower Hutt and Upper Hutt teams, have now been finalised and the work approved for commencement. The Ministry expects this work to be completed by the end of May 2012.
The work involved in relocating court services and undertaking remedial work is a significant and complex work programme which presents the Ministry with a number of logistical and resource challenges. Due to finite resources the Ministry has been focusing on Dunedin, Masterton and Christchurch courthouses as a priority because of these courts' high volumes of work and the extent of remediation work involved. The Ministry is still considering its approach and remediation options for the other courthouses. Therefore the Ministry's approach for Upper Hutt will not be determined until at least the end of the year.
Private Secretary (Advisory) to Hon Chester Borrows
Minister for Courts, Associate Minister of Justice, Associate Minister for Social Development, MP for Whanganui"