Change of court status 'retrograde'

Solicitors have expressed concern that turning Oamaru court into a hearings-only court will lead to a loss of local contact.

Courts Minister Chester Borrows made the announcement yesterday, confirming its October proposal that Oamaru court's status change from a district court to a hearings court.

It means the court will be open only on hearings days, rather than five days a week, and staff will not be there for administrative work.

"The only change will be losing counter services, but people can access them through different means," Mr Borrows said.

Oamaru solicitor Michael Debuyzer said the change was a seriously retrograde step.

"Members of the public will have less access to court staff in Oamaru. These are staff with a lot of knowledge and ability to manage the court's responsibilities effectively," he said.

Mr Debuyzer also expressed concern about the issue of bail, especially with weekend arrests.

"People may have to spend longer in custody, as they will potentially have to be bailed in Timaru."

Other local solicitors have expressed similar concerns.

The court building has been closed since the earthquakes, but was open five days a week before then. Since then, court has been sitting for 4 days a month at the Oamaru Opera House.

Mr Borrows said the court building's status was not a factor in its decision. "If we can fix the building at a reasonable cost, we will use it again," he said.

The changes will come into effect in March next year. Oamaru's administrative positions would shift to Timaru, but Mr Burrows could not confirm whether any Oamaru staff would lose jobs as a result.

According to yesterday's announcement, Dargaville, Waihi, Te Awamutu, Te Kuiti, Opotiki, Marton, Waipukurau and Balclutha would also become hearing-only courts, while Feilding, Upper Hutt, Warkworth and Whataroa would be closed.

Mr Burrows said the increased access to technology such as Skype would be also able to free up courts.

"We're running a trial for Skype-type Family Court hearings," he said. "A lawyer could sit in their office, in, say Oamaru and Skype into a hearing with a judge based in Dunedin. That's a heck of a lot of travel time that could be saved."

Mr Burrows acknowledged Justices of the Peace could become busier as a result nationwide, but courtrooms in many smaller district courts were already sitting empty for two to three days a week.

In 2011, the Oamaru Court saw 821 cases, a decrease of 11.2 per cent from 2009.

The Timaru Herald