How lawyers find working in New Zealand's courthouses
Lawyers work in them and their function is extremely important: it involves liberty and access to justice.
New Zealand’s courthouses are one of the most important symbols of our justice system. They are the place where justice is done and seen to be done. They are also a workplace for many lawyers - and like all workplaces, their quirks and faults can have an impact on the performance and health of those who work in them.
A survey of courthouses published in LawTalk in February 2018 found that some courthouses were the worse for wear. Waitakere, Auckland District Court, Palmerston North, Rotorua, Tauranga all had major problems. The courthouses in Dunedin and Oamaru have since had major refurbishment and were able to be re-opened last year.
One year on, LawPoints takes a fresh look at the state of New Zealand’s courthouses from the perspective of lawyers. What are they like as workplaces?
The Ministry of Justice is responsible for managing and maintaining the 65 courthouses around the country. It has the job of meeting the demands of justice 2019-style in buildings which were often built in an age before computers, wi-fi, AVL, health and safety laws and many other requirements which are now expected.
The ministry’s annual report for the 2017/18 year notes that its ongoing courthouse work programme is taking place in courthouses which need it most. The report shows the progress which is being made.
“Our property portfolio is one of the largest in the public sector. As we modernise, we have to balance the need to maintain our large existing property portfolio with the need to improve and modernise facilities so they meet our customers’ expectations of 21st-century service delivery,” it says.
“We completed two major award-winning property projects in 2017/18 – the development of the Justice and Emergency Services Precinct and the refurbishment of the historic Dunedin Courthouse.
“The $300 million Justice and Emergency Services Precinct brought all our Christchurch-based courts and tribunals together, along with regional justice and emergency services, in a single, modern facility. Since the earthquake on 22 February 2011, our people had been working out of more than 20 temporary locations across the city. To have all our Christchurch-based teams working together under one roof is a significant milestone for our operations in Christchurch as well as the wider rebuild.”
While there are some ongoing issues with some courthouses, the legal practitioners spoken to stressed how important they are and that, decaying or modern, they are crucial to the process of justice in every corner of the country.
Our focus is on providing a lawyers’ view of the facilities at courthouses. This means that matters such as security, interview facilities, lawyers’ rooms, conveniences, wi-fi and the general environment are highlighted. It is probably natural that the comments will be more critical than laudatory. The intention is to highlight the areas where lawyers believe their work will be made easier through changes.
The Ministry of Justice was provided with a copy of this article and invited to respond. We have included their full response at the end of this article.
Whangārei-based Melissa Russell, who specialises in criminal, traffic and family law, works in the Whangārei District and High Courts, and the Dargaville and Kaitaia courts, a vast geographical area.
Mrs Russell says the Whangārei courthouse, which has seven courtrooms, is being renovated. She says there is an excellent law library at the courthouse, but there isn’t a librarian available. The photocopier machine is described as ancient and unreliable.
There is no wi-fi so lawyers use the data off their mobile phones to access the internet. Mrs Russell says while the new client interview rooms are of an excellent standard, including being soundproof, some lawyers are annoyed that an internal sound system has not been installed.
“If we are with a client, we are unable to hear as to whether a particular matter involving that person has been called over in court. That just slows the process down and generally annoys the sitting judge,” she says.
The Dargaville courthouse is a hearing court nowadays. Ms Russell says the interview room for people in custody is next door to the judge’s chambers, meaning that confidentiality between lawyer and client is difficult.
“Judges have even told us they can hear everything we are saying. We used to be sent over to the local police station to conduct interviews but that has since stopped.”
The Kaitaia District Court is a single courtroom and aside from a lack of wi-fi - which is the case through Northland - Mrs Russell says the courthouse generally runs well.
The Auckland High Court continues to impress but two of the District Courts in urban Auckland still appear to be lacking in the basics.
Lawyers describe Auckland High Court as very good. The wi-fi connection is excellent and there is a café and plenty of interview rooms. Toilets are clean and courtrooms are well equipped and comfortable. The only criticism is directed at the cells by the court which are described as “pretty awful and almost impossible to take instructions in”. A splash of paint and better lighting would assist greatly, one lawyer says.
The cells at the Auckland District Court though were described as “shocking”. One of the reasons the AVL (audio visual link) project was trialled at Auckland was because the cells were “inhumane for defendants”, are prone to flooding and stink, according to one lawyer. That AVL project has been put on hold so the cells are back in use. Another lawyer described the courthouse as a bit like accident and emergency in a hospital.
The lawyers’ room at the court is described as not user friendly by lawyers. It is labelled as dreary by some, with no tea or coffee making facilities, and could do with “a total makeover”.
“It is a shame as this is a busy court but there is nowhere that lawyers can go to discuss matters or have some collegiality,” says one lawyer.
Wi-fi connection is challenging. The cell area is tiny and uncomfortable. The conditions in the cells are described as dire. The cells outside the court are also old and unpleasant and many do not have interview facilities despite being jury trial courts.
The cells can be said to be breach of health and safety standards, a lawyer says. “They’re filthy, they smell, and there is no ventilation. They smell of toilets and unclean humans. Lawyers go in and out but people who occupy the cells are stuck there all day. The answer cannot be not bringing people to court and using AVL; the answer should be to fix these problems.”
Another lawyer says the air conditioning doesn’t work effectively at Auckland District Court, so it swelters in the summer but is freezing in the winter. Lawyers says that if there are to be any renovations, it would be good if lawyers were consulted as to what improvements might be needed there.
Lawyers say they’ve heard rumours that the court will be getting renovated but say that’s been a rumour for about 10 years.
The Ministry of Justice says renovations are planned at the Auckland District Court over the next two years. The work programme is still being approved.
One lawyer says she is grateful that going to Waitakere District Court is a rare occasion.
“When I do it is obvious that it is a court needing a total overhaul. It is badly laid out, the lawyer room is tiny and there’s few interview rooms.”
Another senior lawyer said the courthouse building is of a similar standard to that of the Otahuhu District Court about five years before it was shut down. “It’s a disgrace and a health hazard.” There have been drainage problems under the building and the downstairs toilets were not available for a period.
One lawyer says a toilet on the ground floor leaked out into the foyer about a year ago. There is graffiti on the walls and ceilings and cigarette burn marks are all over the toilet areas.
It’s not difficult for some people in custody to jump the dock in the courtroom and it has happened this year several times.
The lawyers’ room on the ground floor is described as tiny, not fit for purpose and without a telephone line, but it does have internet. The lawyers have brought their own coffee machine and microwave to work.
“We’re conscious that some of buildings, such as the courthouse in Waitakere, have a range of maintenance issues, and are investigating options to address them. For example, we upgraded the cells two years ago and have recently remodelled the service counter. This is a leased building and we are working with the building owner on maintenance matters,” says Fraser Gibbs, the Ministry of Justice’s General Manager Commercial and Property.
Manukau District Court is clean but the cells have no soundproofing. There’s no confidentiality in the interview area.
“You can hear what is being said and this is despite the modernisation of the Manukau District Court,” says one local practitioner. “The court, for example, has an odd set up with relation to the Youth Court. It should be separate from the general public so that young people don’t have exposure to the criminal justice system, but the Youth Court is in the middle of the extension wing and the original wing. To get to from one to the other you have to walk through the Youth Court or through the courtyard which is only separated by glass. Young people are not really protected from other older defendants.”
The Manukau building has been renovated, the lawyers’ room is described as good although printing is expensive. There are not enough interview rooms for such a busy court but the jury trial area is “pretty good”.
A senior lawyer describes the courtrooms at North Shore District Court as “lovely, with good cells”. The upstairs interview rooms have soundproof but the glass surrounds affects privacy, and laptops can be read from outside the rooms.
A barrister who works there often says the Thames courthouse is in good condition. “There are two to three interview rooms, I’ve never had an issue getting the use of one. The court’s good, fit for purpose and in a modern building.”
Waikato and Bay of Plenty
Justice Minister Andrew Little says the Ministry of Justice recognises that there are wider issues with Tauranga’s courthouse.
He says a number of options are being considered, from refurbishment to complete replacement.
“Those options will be considered alongside other projects requiring capital expenditure,” he says.
Mr Little also notes that leaks identified in the roof of the courthouse have been fixed.
Tauranga-based barrister and member of the Law Society’s Waikato Bay of Plenty branch Council, Rita Nabney, has been appearing in the local courthouse for seven years. She says that while the workload has changed considerably, due to Tauranga’s massive growth to become New Zealand’s fifth city, the building itself hasn’t.
“As a criminal barrister I have to share the single unisex toilet with Crown witnesses. We also to share the very tiny – it’s probably a metre by a metre – facility for making a cup of tea, coffee etc.”
She says the increase in work has put considerable pressure on the courthouse.
“The High Court only sits here occasionally here with most Tauranga High Court matters being heard in Rotorua. We really need a permanent High Court as the Tauranga Crown, defence counsel and clients usually have to drive to Rotorua for a bail hearing. Now that’s got to be a huge waste of time and resource. No criminal high court sitting in Tauranga is a significant problem.”
Ms Nabney says there’s no secure facilities at the Registrar’s Court and the aisle walking up to the dock is “not even a metre wide” and it passes defence counsel and police.
She says in the Registrar’s Court the only private interview room is up one floor because the interview rooms in the court are for duty lawyers. In the main court there are two rooms “which are for everybody – there’s just a total lack of space”.
Ms Nabney notes that the busy Waihi courthouse, which covers much of the Coromandel, has two interview rooms which can accommodate a maximum of three people and are in the main reserved for duty lawyers. There are no dedicated facilities for lawyers.
The Rotorua courthouse, which was described at the end of 2017 by visiting barrister Sam Wimsett as “a disgrace”, is to undergo work that primarily helps lawyers.
Among the problems he highlighted were just two dark, cramped and non-soundproof meeting rooms in the cells for four courtrooms, accessible only through the court’s back entrance, and often with a queue of waiting counsel. One first floor toilet served for counsel, police and witnesses. The law library which includes a toilet, had been closed because of high levels of mould.
The lawyers’ room, which doubles as the law library, is operational again after closing to have black mould in the roof removed.
The Ministry of Justice’s General Manager Commercial and Property, Fraser Gibbs, says action will be taken to remedy the issues.
“The Ministry of Justice has begun planning for an upgrade of the Rotorua District and High Court building and the neighbouring Hauora House, home of the Māori Land Court.
“Consultation with key stakeholders about the state of the buildings has been completed and architects have started developing the initial concept design.
“The design will address long-standing maintenance issues as well as modernising the buildings to make them fit-for-purpose, including upgrades to the custodial area and courtrooms.
“Subject to final approval, building consent and tendering, it is anticipated that phased construction work will begin late this year.”
Gene Tomlinson, a criminal lawyer with Gowing & Co, says there is a lack of facilities for lawyers at Whakatane when they need to talk to prisoners making an appearance.
“While we now have an AVL suite, the real difficulty is custody interview space. We’ve got one room for interviewing prisoners in custody, and if you’ve got one lawyer talking to their client for a fairly lengthy period of time, it delays everything else. AVL has mitigated that problem a little bit but the reality is we need at least two if not three rooms to interview in-custody clients as in its present state court is often delayed.
“There are two interview rooms in the foyer plus a third room that people use but which isn’t an actual interview room.”
Mr Tomlinson says he loves the Opotiki court even though there are not enough seats for lawyers – or perhaps there’s just too many lawyers on the roster – so lawyers are often sitting in the public gallery.
“The courthouse was built between 1910 and 1911, it’s extremely old school and it’s one that you make do with because it has historic status, and to not have a court operating in Opotiki would be a disaster.”
A Hamilton barrister says the District and High Courts are both in decent condition with good facilities, but that space and privacy are an issue.
“There are not many spaces where you can have a private chat with your client so discussions generally have to be in an open public foyer and that’s not so good.”
He says court staff often lock up the interview rooms “presumably for security reasons”. “It’s a big bloody hassle to get the registrar to open the door”.
“All conversations with clients are private but some are considerably more sensitive to privacy issues than others. And you don’t want to be in a foyer with 30 or so people and you find yourself in a little corner chatting away and you’re never too sure who is a few feet away.”
Another Hamilton barrister, Rob Quin, says the Morrinsville courthouse is not fit for purpose.
”It’s probably the worst court I have attended in terms of facilities anywhere in the country. And part of that comes down to the age of the building, and how small it is. There’s only one interview room which has to be shared with all the lawyers who attend and there’s other parties that use it too, like forensics, nurses, and probation officers. We have busy list days and if we can’t use that room we tend to speak to people outside the court or even inside the court itself which is not exactly great. We make it work but it’s less than ideal.”
Mr Quin says the custody cell is “old and not very pleasant” and if there’s more than one person in custody one or more people have to be kept at the police station.
The court does not have AVL as yet.
Mr Quin says Huntly is more spacious with four interview rooms and is a more modern building, while Te Awamutu also has ample interview rooms – three - and has been recently upgraded.
One local practitioner reports that the courthouse in Taupo is in acceptable condition.
“It has a little bit of wear and tear and often when things get broken it takes a while to get them fixed but overall I have to say it's in pretty good condition.
“In terms of facilities it doesn't have a dedicated AVL suite which is a bit problematic however. But otherwise it’s fine.”
Criminal solicitor Stephen Taylor says the Gisborne courthouse is suitable but imperfect.
“It’s, at some point, smaller than we would like it to be. But I think that’s common across the country. It’s fit for purpose, it manages to house what we need to and get through the list we need to,” he says.
Mr Taylor says there are not enough interview rooms but the legal community works with it. “It’s a busy little courthouse and we work with what we’ve got and get on with it. It operates every day of the week other than when the judge is serving in Wairoa or Ruatoria.”
Other lawyers feel the courthouse facilities have been outgrown. One says there are often over six lawyers waiting in Courtroom 2, sitting just behind the bench, which has room for only three lawyers. “The defendants have to walk along and through the public gallery to the dock, which is unsafe,” another says.
“The courthouse is adequate but too small. More room is needed and the facilities need to be updated. The conveniences are fine.”
One lawyer feels that access to clients is suitable. “We have available space to confer privately with them. Panic buttons have been placed in all interview rooms, with the layout of the furniture changed to the lawyer is close to the button. Overall, I think that things have improved.”
At the Wairoa courthouse there is one client meeting room which is separated from the actual courthouse. There is no security presence when court is in session. Lawyers often have to meet with clients out front in all weather conditions.
Taranaki Law Society branch President Caroline Silk says while the New Plymouth District Court building had an upgrade a few years ago, that was to the Registry area and Judges’ chambers and not the courtrooms themselves. “It is lacking in interview rooms, a lawyers’ room - we are currently working on this with the ministry - and generally has limited conveniences - such as one toilet for all.”
Ms Silk says one courtroom has no access to the cells and generally the building is limited in size and capacity.
“We have no room for modernisation or broadening services available (such as if mental health services were available in the courthouse when required there is no suitable space). The waiting area is small.”
Purpose-built Family Court facilities are not being used while security issues are ironed out. This means access to the Family Court system is not user-friendly, no longer private, with the courtroom substitute a criminal court set up, which is not satisfactory. The branch is working with the ministry and Law Society Courthouse Committee to resolve things. While progress is being made, it has been slow.
“While the facilities have worsened over the last year, at least we now have an open dialogue to ensure these matters are resolved. I am positive that we will resolve the current problems in time,” says Ms Silk.
Caroline Silk says the Hawera courthouse has even fewer facilities and the interview room space available is not adequate. “Access is limited with everyone coming through the same door – ie, prosecution and lawyers have only one way in and out, which poses a security risk.”
New Zealand Law Society Branch President Mark Bullock, who often works in the Family Court, says the Whanganui city courthouse is small but functional.
“There’s a single waiting room which makes it difficult at times if both parties are mingling together. There are three interview rooms which are adequate.”
Speaking in December, Mr Bullock said the Ministry of Justice had just begun some work on the courthouse.
“Part of that was because the defendants had to walk around a rail that separated the public gallery and the Bar and there was not much room between the rail and where the Bar would sit. Where the Police and the Bar sit is now being separated off which I think makes sense otherwise you would have people coming in and out of the dock.”
Central North Island lawyer Joanna Jordan says there are no interview rooms at Ohakune, where she acts as duty solicitor. “I have to talk really quietly”.
There is no AVL and no wi-fi at the courthouse but she describes the building itself as “very beautiful” and functional.
The native timber building retains much of the original features, she adds.
Ms Jordan says Taihape, on the other hand, has two meeting rooms but it also does not have AVL nor wi-fi. A new security system has recently been installed and other upgrades include new carpets and paintwork.
Palmerston North lawyers describe the courthouse building as old, but with some “new parts tacked on to it”.
They say the public toilets on the upper floor where the majority of courts are held are very run down and unpleasant. And the public waiting area outside the main Courts is also “feeling and smelling pretty old”.
On the upside, some recent improvements like installing glass barriers into the smaller court used often for arrests have been helpful. However the glass panels in the main jury court, combined with audio system changes, make it very hard for those in the gallery to hear the evidence.
The air-conditioning has been described as “temperamental”. One lawyer says there have been hearings where fans have been brought into the court room in lieu of the air conditioning.
“But to little effect, given our court building seems to have alternating ambitions to be a sauna or a fridge depending on its mood.”
The newer courtroom is often described as very cold, and the older courtrooms as very stuffy.
“One of my colleagues had a trial going when the air conditioning last failed. The judge kindly let counsel dispense with jackets and robes, and did so himself, but the jury were suffering, even with several fans pointed at them! It wasn’t even summer,” the lawyer says.
Lawyers say the lack of a properly sized jury assembly room also creates difficulties in that the jury panel has to watch their instruction video in groups, and the rest have to wait outside the courtroom, mingling with the Monday morning criminal list and their families, who are waiting outside the other courtrooms. They say that when they start empanelling, they cannot fit the whole panel into the courtroom easily, so people are standing cheek by jowl in all the gallery space, and in the body of the court.
Audio systems in various courtrooms have failed on many occasions, and courts have had to be moved because the recording systems aren’t working. The main culprit courtroom (ironically the newest) had to be upgraded and re-done to fix it.
There is no wi-fi, to the annoyance of all who practise law in the Palmerston North courthouse. Lawyers say it has been on the agenda for years but has still not yet been implemented. They cope by spending large amounts of money on 3G connections for office laptops when they are needed in court, which is often.
The local Manawatu prison does not have AVL, despite an outcry for this technology particularly when it is very hard to get hold of prisoners because of under-resourcing at the prison. Like the wi-fi, lawyers say it has been a work in progress for years without any actual progress. Prisoners are being driven in for minor appearances when they wouldn’t need to be if there was AVL.
Lawyers say that another functional issue which is a combination of physical courtroom space and judicial rostering issues is pressure to hold High Court trials and hearings such as pre-trials in Wellington. This is an issue for Whanganui too. They say this is because there is not courtroom space available in Palmerston North. Having hearings in Wellington creates an additional burden for counsel on all sides in most cases. However, bail/sentence appeals, or callovers, with the Judge in Wellington via AVL and both counsel in Palmerston North work adequately; but for substantive hearings, lawyers all prefer to act in person.
The courtrooms in Napier serve their purpose, says a Napier barrister, who feels that more interview rooms are needed in the District Court area.
Local lawyers say the courthouse in Hastings leaks when it rains. They say the lawyers’ room is under-utilised and this is probably because of poor placement and the lack of a loudspeaker to announce cases. There are no security issues, but the design for a supposed jury trial in courtroom 4 is such that it cannot be used for that purpose.
Lawyers who work in the Waipukurau courthouse says it’s an old building and a non-lawyer is trying to get changes made. They believe the building has untapped potential for better use of space. At the moment there is not enough interviewing space of lawyers, and things can get very crowded.
Christopher Griggs of Barristers.Comm says the Wellington District Court is “tired”, but typical of the standard of accommodation to be found elsewhere in the public sector.
He says lawyers have to “learn on the fly” how to use the AVL system with insufficient help for defence counsel in setting it up and making it work. The lack of wi-fi for counsel in the Wellington District Court, and other courts, also hinders counsel’s ability to move more towards a paperless approach to hearings and needs to be addressed.
Mr Griggs says the interview rooms are suitable but small in the District Court while in the High Court there is no booking system and it’s all very ad hoc. “I’ve been fortunate up until now that there’s always been one available to use.”
He describes the Porirua District Court as “on a par” with the Wellington District Court in looking “pretty tired” with the interview rooms “cold and utilitarian” and he prefers to meet clients in chambers or nearby cafes.
The country’s remotest and quietest courthouse, on the Chatham Islands, sits about every three months.
“By and large the facilities at the Chathams are pretty good,” says one Wellington lawyer who works at the court in Waitangi. “The duty solicitor’s room is good.”
Two Lower Hutt lawyers both say the Hutt Valley courthouse has a number of issues.
Those include insufficient interview rooms for the three courtooms, says Louise Sziranyi, a partner at Thomas Dewar Sziranyi Letts.
She also says the lightning is poor in those three rooms.
There is also a lack of cell meeting rooms.
“We used to have three cell meeting rooms but now there are only two due to renovation which is inadequate and that often results in a queue of lawyers trying to see defendants who are in custody.”
It appears that the AVL suite is “sufficient” but there is only one, again leading to queues if matters are stood down or not running to time, says Ms Sziranyi.
Melanie Baker, the principal at her eponymous law firm, adds that there are no power outlets avilable to counsel in the courtrooms to charge phones and laptops. “There were a few of these before but they seem to have gone. Similarly access to wi-fi that was once available to counsel seems to have disappeared. Unfortunately, these changes are never explained to us,” says Ms Baker.
Among other issues highlighted are the frequent smell of food in some courtrooms through the aircon system “which is unpleasant and must somehow make it’s way up from the staff kitchen area,” says Ms Sziranyi, who also says there is poor air reticulation in the cell area meeting rooms which makes it difficult to remain there and take instructions at times.
James Elliott, a Director at Upper Hutt Law, says the Masterton courthouse is now “on a par” with other courts around the country after being refurbished due to seismic strengthening.
“We’ve just had AVL technology installed in the past six months and there are some teething issues with that. The small AVL suite is in a small room which, when the connection works, works well.
“But on the whole it is going well and a great facility for lawyers. There is also wi-fi and we have a solicitor’s room with a photocopier and scanner.
“We do have issues in that there is only one interview room for people in custody, and it’s becoming a far busier court so there is some congestion.”
Mr Elliott says there are four interview rooms for the courts which “can become congested at times particularly when the Family Court is operating at the same time as the District Court”.
He says the courthouse, like many around the country, has its idiosyncracies. “When you go inside the courtroom it is one of those older, traditional wooden courtrooms with a lot of engravings and graffitti on the wall, which has its own charm. And that’s also the case in the bail room. You find some interesting information there.”
Nelson barristers say the relatively new Nelson courthouse is generally very good and fit for purpose, with good audibility and lighting for presentation. There are also two jury trial courtrooms and a vastly bigger Family Courtroom.
However, a lack of interview rooms on the ground floor is a problem. One barrister said it is not uncommon to be providing instructions to a client in non-private areas such as a quiet corner. There is one single interview room on the ground floor which is barely used. There are four on the first floor and three on the third floor, which one lawyer says can be time consuming to go to, during the course of a day in court.
Law Society Marlborough branch President and barrister Kent Arnott describes the Blenheim courthouse as “pretty good overall”. “However, we only have three client interview rooms in the foyer and one in the cells. This presents issues on busy list days and can cause delays for lawyers who need to take instructions from clients,” he says.
Blenheim has no resident District Court judges, meaning they travel from Nelson or Wellington to sit there.
“We frequently have weeks where a Judge is only sitting on Mondays and/or Tuesdays,” Mr Arnott says. “This presents issues for defendants appearing in Court for the rest of the week where the Police or Crown oppose bail and only a Judge can deal with the bail application but no Judge is sitting in Blenheim (eg, if sections 10, 12 or 17A of the Bail Act apply). In these situations, more often than not, the defendant appears in front of a Justice of the Peace and is then remanded in custody to reappear in front of a Judge the following Monday for their bail application to be heard. This is obviously an issue from a Bill of Rights perspective. We have AVL facilities at the court and make good use of it on other occasions. As a result, we are hopeful that the use of this technology can increase so that judges can be joined in by AVL to deal with the matters on the day, without the need for the defendants to spend that additional time in custody.”
The Kaikoura courthouse was burnt down (by a still-unknown arsonist) in 2010 and has not been replaced. The Kaikoura District Court sits about once every six weeks in the Kaikoura Memorial Hall and has done so since 2010. Kent Arnott says the facilities are extremely unsatisfactory for all concerned.
“A builder sets the hall up like a courtroom before each sitting and then takes it down afterwards. It is a community hall and is therefore a shared space with other community groups. The interview rooms are substandard as they are effectively just side rooms in the hall.”
Mr Arnott says there are no security concerns about the Blenheim courthouse, but there are concerns about Kaikoura given it’s a community hall and “all the issues that go along with this”.
The new Justice and Emergency Services Precinct in Christchurch includes the most modern district courtrooms in New Zealand.
Law Society Canterbury Westland Branch President Grant Tyrrell, a partner at Weston Ward & Lascelles, feels the Christchurch courthouse is a good building
Mr Tyrrell says the courtrooms are nicer to work in and when a lawyer has a number of hearings in one day there are rooms that can be used between hearings. The courthouse has wi-fi and it usually works.
There is also an agencies’ room, making it easier to bring agency representatives such as mental health to the court.
The management and staff are good, he adds.
He also has a few criticisms.
“The main concern is that constitutional separation issue, the blurring of the constitutional separation between the enforcement of justice and the administration of it. The police are housed in the same building.”
He characterises the building as “an extension of the police station”.
“The previous list court had seating for 100 people, but the new one is cramped and difficult to move around with seating for only 30 people,” Mr Tyrrell says.
“It is a tight space where people are prone to trip over each other which creates potential issues in terms of security, especially as counsel have their backs to the public. The counsel bar is close to the public seating area, so the public walk through the court behind counsel, so you never know where anyone is.”
Mr Tyrrell says that privacy while taking instructions in the courthouse is good. The areas are better and there are now are number of interview rooms. Now there is space for interview rooms to be used for breakout sessions. Mediation has excellent rooms.
However, non-contact interview rooms, for taking instructions from prisoners, are not sound-proof.
He feels that as PDS clients have to go through the court to see counsel, that creates “bad optics”.
Mr Tyrrell considers that the Ministry of Justice’s presumptive reliance on AVL within the building for custody matters is taking justice out of the courtroom.
He says where defendants appear in person this is a massive imposition on the police staff, as there are only two small holding cells outside the main list court – requiring multiple transfers of prisoners.
“Some judges consider – in my view rightly - that all first appearances are substantive and should therefore be in person. This means that during bail hearings the Police then have to take out and return prisoners from the two cells which is time consuming, causes delays and has resulted in the Police having to expand the escort team.”
On a positive note, Mr Tyrrell is pleased that the ministry has now erected prominent “Law Courts” signs over each of the entrance ways. He hopes that the courts will no longer be referred to as the “justice precinct”, reflecting the important, separate constitutional role of the courts.
Jonathan Everist appears in both the Christchurch and Timaru Family Courts.
He says both buildings, while lacking the authority, presence and majesty of the original buildings, are, however, modern and practical.
The public waiting facilities are better, he adds, being more spacious and enable "semi-private" conversations between opposing parties and their counsel. The available rooms allow complete privacy. As the courtrooms themselves are more spacious there is better separation between the public gallery, the lawyers and the presiding judge.
Jonathan Everist also appears in the Ashburton courthouse and says it is “not ideal, but it is a courthouse that local people can go to without travelling 90 minutes to the brand-new courthouse in Christchurch and then returning to Ashburton, or travelling 60 minutes to the new courthouse in Timaru.”
“I consider the courthouse could be extended and have previously advocated for that. We need to make rooms available for interviewing clients privately, and to reduce the noise that permeates into the courtroom itself from the area outside, which is labelled a waiting room, but which is, in reality, simply a wide-ish corridor.
Marilyn Gilchrist has practised as a general practice lawyer in Ashburton since 2007.
“Firstly, we are extremely grateful to have a court in Ashburton and don’t want to lose it. We only recently got a resident Family Court registrar back, and it is fantastic,” she says.
“We need two more duty lawyer/interview rooms — we only have one, and the use of an office beside the main office.
“We aren’t permitted to have a library, because of security reasons, and configuration of the court. We would like our library back,” says Ms Gilchrist.
“We don’t have wi-fi, or sockets under desks to plug in computers (I acknowledge I need a new battery/or lap top) but in an all-day fixture it is not unreasonable to be able to recharge technology.
“Originally when the court was upgraded in the 1990s, it was envisaged that the rooms out the back would be interview/probation etc rooms, waiting rooms etc and the judge’s chambers would also be for Youth Court and Family Court, hence the waiting rooms etc, but for safety reasons and the configuration of the court these are not used.
“We can’t have AVL, we don’t have the technology, but I am not sure I agree with AVL for prisoners anyway, but it can be useful for witnesses,” she says.
“The new security means that we can only have one exit from the courthouse to the outside of the courthouse, they close the other - that is a disaster waiting to happen. We have previously had scuffles inside the waiting area, and people need to get out safely.”
Bev Connors has been practising on the West Coast for many years.
“The Westport courthouse, which is renovated but very traditional, has one large courtroom used at different times of the day and court week for either District or Family Court,” she says.
“The waiting areas consist of hallway and public waiting areas off that with no room for privacy. The use made of various rooms by counsel has retracted over the years as court staff have reclaimed their café area and the judges have reclaimed chambers which was once used as a mediation room and court of hearing, so any private conversations occur outside or very quietly. Not the best, but managed.
“The courtroom, which is light and has large high windows lends formality to the proceedings but was designed and built long before the age of telecommunication. As a consequence, the telephone speaker is turned up so that Bench and Bar can hear what is being said by anyone who attends by telephone. Out of town counsel would no doubt be surprised to learn that they can at times be heard from the adjacent hallway.”
Ms Connors says the Greymouth courthouse is a labyrinth of passages and interview rooms servicing three modern court rooms. “It is a great facility with amenities for all users.”
“The building had an earlier life as a supermarket and somewhere in the transformation the designers didn’t factor in the need to get better sound proofing in the ceilings of the courtrooms. There have been occasions when proceedings have paused (momentarily) until heavy rain has subsided. It can be a tad loud at times as I’m sure the transcribers will attest.
“We relocated our library to this new building some years ago and can use the room allocated to counsel for meetings and as a quiet place for work.
“Both courts have a solid and reliable security presence on court days and the judge is well separated from the parties.
“Wi-fi for easy access to data while at court? Are you joking? We do have access to a Law Society terminal in a room at the back of the Greymouth courthouse for research in, however which is great, but wi-fi is stretching it.
“But please don’t be under the impression that there is any dissatisfaction with the facilities here. Not at all. We are happy to have access to courts and are happy with the facilities.”
Two of Otago’s courthouses have reopened over the past 12 months to much fanfare.
The Dunedin courthouse was reopened by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on 26 January 2018, more than six years after it was closed due to earthquake risks. All cases and hearings were held in temporary facilities on High Street, as well as at John Wickliffe House.
The Greystone Victorian Gothic building was originally opened in 1902.
The Ministry of Justice said the changes were designed to “substantially improve court capacity and capability, as well as an improved environment for the judiciary and ministry employees; court users; visitors and others associated with court appearances and processes”.
And while the Dunedin courthouse is clearly the main focus for the province’s legal community, the reopening of the Oamaru courthouse in October 2018 was no less significant for North Otago lawyers.
Described as “a jewel in a remarkable heritage precinct,” by Associate Professor Conal McCarthy of the Victoria University of Wellington, the Victorian structure was also closed down in 2011 due to earthquake risk.
Bill Dean of Dean & Associates came up with an alternative repair proposal after the Ministry of Justice’s proposal projected costs into several million dollars.
“Don’t ask me how, but the engineer employed by the government following the (2011) earthquakes had a look at the building and came up with a figure of between four and six million dollars to remediate it. Now, I know that building pretty well as I’ve been appearing in it for 35 years, and I knew that there was no way that it would cost anywhere near close to that figure. It was purely an excuse to say ‘no this is too expensive we’re going to shut it down’.
“There was no one else putting their hand up to test it (the initial report). Everyone agreed that the original assessment was pure bullshit. But I was effectively left on my own; other members of the profession were sympathetic and that’s about as far as it went.
“My wife, Jacqui Dean, the National MP for Waitaki, became involved in the efforts to retain the court and it was through her that I was able to approach Chester Burrows, the then Minister for Courts.
“And then a shift began, and the council then became involved.”
Mr Dean organised another report and the figure for repairs was in the region of $300-350,000.
The total cost of the work was about $1 million, with the Waitaki District Council bearing most of that.
“The building should now be safe from anything other than from a direct hit by an A-bomb,” Bill Dean says.
Mr Dean says the work has included some security work to the cells, and other relatively minor matters.
“What they have done, by and large, is around health and safety, and cosmetic. The basic outline of the building end hasn’t changed. It is great that Oamaru has its local court back.”
The Queenstown courthouse is a “very busy” court, says Dale Lloyd, the Central Otago representative for the New Zealand Law Society Otago branch and principal at Lloyd Troon Law. She feels the town’s growth has exceeded the initial purpose of the building.
“When it was built it probably wasn’t future-proofed for what Queenstown was going to be. But it is kept in a very good order,” she says.
Ms Lloyd believes there needs to be a jury court due to the growing population.
“When I started practising here, Queenstown was only a circuit court and the main court was in Alexandra, but that’s reversed now. I’ve been agitating for some time for a jury court for Queenstown.”
AVL was installed during 2018, meaning counsel no longer have to go to Invercargill to take instructions from prisoners in custody there. There are two interview rooms outside the main court and one in use for the Family Court.
The Alexandra courthouse does not have AVL and “now sits less regularly,” says Ms Lloyd, and “that means that when it does sit it has really huge court lists”.
The court contains just two interview rooms.
“The Invercargill courthouse is in reasonable condition, but wi-fi is limited and very much needed throughout,” says one lawyer.
“There are only two interview rooms on the ground floor and more would be great in a perfect world. Three duty lawyers are rostered on for list days but only two rooms are available, so one lawyer usually has to take instructions in the public foyer which is not ideal.
“More seating in the most regularly used AVL courtroom (courtroom 3) for counsel is vital - or a better solution would be to have an AVL system installed in courtroom 2 where there is generally enough room for counsel. At the moment there is an unwieldy system involving the criminal list running in courtroom 2 from 10am to 11:30am, then shifting everything and everyone (including all files for the court, prosecution and defence counsel) to courtroom 3 so that the defendants in custody can be called using the AVL system in that court. The court then continues to run in that court until 1pm, and usually shifts everything back to courtroom 2 for the afternoon.
“In terms of security, there’s plenty of security staff, but ideally glass walls for the interview rooms would be good rather than the wooden walls and doors currently in place, in line with modern courthouses.”
Fraser Gibbs, General Manager Commercial and Property, Ministry of Justice, says a major redevelopment in 2009-11 has improved the city’s courts.
“As part of the redevelopment, a second storey was added to the front of the building to accommodate the family courtroom and hearing room, lawyers’ room, JP and adjudicators’ rooms and public areas.
“The ground floor was reconfigured to provide a third courtroom with custodial access and secure judges’ entry, additional public waiting areas, improved facilities for support agencies, additional judicial areas and improved staff space.
“Courtrooms one and two were refurbished. New heating and ventilation was installed and the installation of a lift provided access to the new upper level as well as to the existing file storage areas in the basement. Whilst the registry counters are in an adjacent building, the refurbished courthouse has a single public entry where scanning is undertaken by court security officers. Wi-fi is available for lawyers in courtroom 1.”
The Gore courthouse, which was built in 1980 on ministry-owned land, has undergone regular maintenance and upgrades, including adding a second court room, replacing the roof, guttering, carpet and window seals to ensure it continues to be a well-maintained facility for the people of Gore.
Currently, there is no wi-fi at the courthouse.
Ministry of Justice response
The ministry was provided with a copy of this article and invited to respond. The following comments have been supplied by Fraser Gibbs, General Manager Commercial and Property:
Since the Law Society published its feature on New Zealand’s courthouses a year ago, we’ve continued to invest in our facilities and undertake technology upgrades.
These projects have included the completion of a major upgrade at the Kaitaia District Court and, working with the Waitaki District Council, the reopening of the historic Oamaru District Court Hearings Centre. Several other projects will get underway this year, including a major upgrade at Rotorua.
We have a large property portfolio that extends the length and breadth of New Zealand, including the Chatham Islands. We spend $14 million every year on maintenance and cleaning alone.
We don’t own all our facilities, and many are heritage buildings. Many were built at different times, and to different standards, for example, when computers were massive machines that lived in specialised rooms, rather than the small devices many carry around or sit on our desks. Not surprisingly, not every counsel desk in a courtroom designed 40 years ago has a power point underneath it and attempting to retrofit them can be a costly and difficult process. We acknowledge some buildings – such as Tauranga and Rotorua – have significant maintenance issues and we’re committed to addressing them.
The Law Society’s communications team provided us with a draft of the updated feature two days ago and have been asking us questions about specific courts over the last few months, which we’ve responded to as they’ve been put to us. Some of the points raised – the lack of tea and coffee facilities or a librarian in a law library – are not matters for the ministry to address. Among the issues raised, two stand out – standards in the custodial suites and wifi.
As your readers can readily understand, those going through courthouse custodial suites are some of the most stressed people any public-sector organisation deals with on a daily basis. Thousands of people go through these cells every year.
We’ve recognised that our custodial suites need to be upgraded and we’re currently undertaking a $30 million cell safety project. It is designed to enhance the safety of the people held in them, and of the Corrections, Police and Oranga Tamariki people who are responsible for defendants while held in custody.
Wifi is currently provided in selected courthouses and we recognise the growing demand for this service by lawyers. Our ICT people have begun looking at options for expanding the availability of wifi but this will depend on securing funding.
The ministry is always open to hearing from anyone who uses our courthouses about improvements that could be made or maintenance issues that need to be addressed. We’ll be looking at the comments provided, but I urge lawyers who have specific concerns to contact their local court manager so they can be referred to the property team to be addressed.
Last updated on the 16th September 2019