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Strengthening court services to local communities

17 May 2002
Speech Notes

Strengthening court services to local communities

Announcement of decision on the future of the Department for Courts proposal to reconfigure small courts – Rangiora District Court, Percival Street, Rangiora.

Parliamentary colleagues, local government leaders, community leaders, departmental officials, honoured guests.

In 1997, the National Government accepted a plan to modernise court administration. The plan envisaged new administrative processes, changed jobs and new jobs for court staff, and new information technology tools.

Earlier this year, the Department for Courts made public its proposal to reconfigure fifteen small courts.

Under the proposal, twelve would become Court Hearing Centres. These courts would continue to sit and hear cases as they do now, but their administrative services would be provided from the nearest larger court. On hearing days, the court staff would travel to the Hearing Centre along with the Judge, conduct the business of the court, and then return to the base court.

Under the proposal, the other three courts, Rangiora, Ranfurly and Lumsden, would close. Lumsden has not sat for four years. Ranfurly has not sat for ten years. Rangiora, on the other hand, is a sitting court.

The proposal went out to public consultation – genuine, open public consultation. The main aim of the consultation was to identify local issues as local people saw them, and work the issues through.

Departmental managers visited many of the relevant communities. They held meetings with local lawyers, Justices of the Peace, community groups, and individuals.

Local and national politicians had their say. In all, around 600 submissions were received for my consideration.

The department has done a fine job running the consultation, and I congratulate them for their quiet forbearance and dedication.

I am pleased with the consultative process followed, which quite properly ensured that the community was involved in the decision-making process.

This participatory process is consistent with the expressed position of the Clark/Anderton Government that communities should be involved in decisions which affect them.

Sadly, some saw the consultation process as an opportunity to attack the department and its motives.

Most people, however, accepted that the department prepared, in good faith, a proposal that aims to reduce delays and increase efficiency in the court system and then took it to the community.

Most people expect their public institutions to be prudently looking for opportunities to deliver more effective services. As a Minister, I certainly expect this of my departments.

Which brings me to the reason I have asked you here today.

I have given careful consideration to the proposal to reconfigure court services. I have read the submissions. I have discussed the proposal with colleagues.

It has allowed me, as Minister, to test assumptions from all sides.

The proposal gave rise to concerns among local communities that the government is withdrawing from local communities, as governments have done in the past.

In many towns, the courthouse is the symbol of law and order and justice. More than that, it is a symbol of security. People felt the proposal signalled a lessening of the government’s commitment to justice at the local level.

I do not want that perception to arise. Public confidence in the justice system is too fundamental an issue. I have therefore decided not to proceed with the proposal.

The thirteen courts at Dargaville, Warkworth, Te Kuiti, Opotiki, Wairoa, Waipukurau, Taihape, Marton, Feilding, Rangiora, Balclutha, Queenstown and Gore will remain open, providing the current registry services, as they do now.

The courts at Ranfurly and Lumsden, which have not sat for a number of years, will, however, close.

The department’s modernisation programme, aimed at reducing delays, will continue.

There is no doubt that the presence of court staff in these communities is seen as an important part of the service provided by the court. It is clear that court staff in smaller centres play a role in their communities beyond their daily court work.

I am aware that some of the thirteen courthouses will require upgrading to some degree. I have asked the Department for Courts to report to me on what work is needed to comply with health and safety requirements and operational requirements.

This courthouse, for example, requires work. Built in 1893, there is inadequate interview space, a cramped public waiting area, no cells, no facilities for duty solicitors or police, inadequate public toilets, no facilities for the disabled. The site provides limited scope for expansion. A new courthouse built to serve today’s needs would cost in the order of $2 million.

Like the other small courts, any upgrading will concentrate on basic improvements. Any longer term improvements would need to be measured against the department’s building programme priorities.

In the case of Queenstown, I am aware the courthouse is completely inadequate for current needs. I have asked the department to investigate what options are available to replace the courthouse with a modern, comfortable facility better suited to the needs of today – in New Zealand’s premiere tourist destination.

And in Dargaville, work can now get underway in earnest toward the construction of the new $600,000 courthouse refurbishment, announced last year but put on hold while the proposal was considered.

I want to thank all those who committed the time and effort to write, to phone, to email, and to speak with me personally.

I said at the beginning of this process that I had an open mind and that the consultation process was genuine. As a consequence of what I have learnt, the thirteen small courts will remain open – the buildings will be upgraded over time – and Dargaville and Queenstown will get new courthouses.

This is an outcome we can all be proud of because we all played our part.

Na reira, tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.


ENDS

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