When Justice Minister Geoffrey Palmer hopped onto a digger to be photographed looking very enthusiastic about the construction of the Wellington District Court back in 1989 he was no doubt envisioning a modern courthouse fit for the future.
Fast forward 30 years and the current Justice Minister is being shown around what looks like a tired, slightly shabby building that is clearly not fit for a modern justice system. With peeling paint, a tiny entrance served with two equally box like lifts, broken escalators and endless narrow corridors it’s no surprise that Andrew Little is here to talk about a refurbishment.
“This has been a courthouse that’s long needed to be refreshed and renovated”, says Mr Little.
“I think what is important is that the signals we sent in relation to the rebuild of the Tauranga Courthouse, which we want to be the model future courthouse of New Zealand, some of those principles are being incorporated here.
“Safer places for victims, a safe place for those going to the Family Court, and a place that reflects New Zealand and its people with more tikanga based design principles as well.”
$20 million is being invested upgrading Wellington District Court to make it a more modern safe environment and to improve access to justice services
In December Minister Little announced $100 million for a new courthouse in Tauranga. On that occasion he talked about the importance of meeting the commitment to putting victims at the heart of justice system.
During our interview in Wellington he echoed those earlier comments.
“My vision of the New Zealand courthouse of the 21st century is a place where you can go and get your issues sorted.
“You don’t go there with a sense of foreboding and fear, but you go there with a sense of confidence that this is a place where you can actually be directed to where you can get your issues sorted out.
“If that means then there is a probability of lower offending, a better chance of victims getting the support they need, then that’s going to be better for everyone.”
While the scope of the project is still being finalised, some of the work will include:
- An upgrade to the entrance / security area on the ground floor
- Establishing public counters
- Upgrading the administration space
- Addressing weathertightness, cladding and seismic strengthening issues
- Upgrading electrical systems and modernising security systems.
There will also be new spaces designed for victims, to improve their experience of attending court.
The issues facing victims were highlighted in reports from the Chief Victims Advisor, and from the Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group – both of which called for a redesign of our courthouses.
For Justice Manager Sue Little, who oversees the District Court, the investment is very welcome news.
“We’re all really excited about the funding. The refurbishment will allow us to create a much more flexible space that puts the needs of our staff and those who use the Courts first and foremost.”
Back in 2018 LawTalk asked how our courthouses measure up? At that time feedback from the profession indicated there were issues with the facilities in many of our courthouses. A lot of the problems appeared to stem from old buildings struggling to meet modern needs.
Wellington’s District Courts were described as “adequate but not impressive”.
Through the recent response to Covid-19 our courts have been tested for their ability to adapt to an online world. But despite some hearings managing to go ahead a significant backlog of cases has built up, particularly in the District Courts where 47,000 events were adjourned or rescheduled.
Whilst funding has been announced to tackle that backlog of cases, Mr Little says bringing our court systems into the 21st century is vital. That work will not only help those who rarely visit the courtroom, but also the many thousands of staff who spend their days tucked in the back offices, keeping the wheels of justice turning.
“We have amazing court staff,” says Minister Little.
“They go well above and beyond the call of duty because as well as doing their jobs they’re actually dealing with that very human factor, dealing with people in distress, people who are worried, fearful, people with bad attitudes.
We’re all really excited about the funding. The refurbishment will allow us to create a much more flexible space that puts the needs of our staff and those who use the Courts first and foremost
“They have to manage all that and be professional and I think if we can equip courthouses and courthouse staff to deal with that in the way that they also have the sense that the person standing in front of them will get the help that they need, then that’s got to be better for everyone.”
Whilst the design work for the refurbishment at Wellington District Court is already underway, construction isn’t expected to begin until 2021. For anyone wondering what the works currently taking place at the court are, these are addressing weathertightness issues.
From left: General Manager Property Fraser Gibbs, Justice Minister Andrew Little, and Justice Manager Sue Little tour the Wellington District Court building.