Opening of refurbished Dunedin Courthouse

  • Margaret Wilson

Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.

Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias,
Chief District Court Judge Carruthers,
Members of the Judiciary,
Parliamentary Colleagues,
Your Worship Mayor Turner,
Members of the Bar,
Chief Executive Wilson Bailey
Departmental officials
Honoured guests.

It is my privilege today to formally open this wonderfully refurbished building, which has been so important to the development of the law in New Zealand, and is the focus of so much interest for the people of Dunedin.

History of building

When Acting Premier Sir Joseph Ward opened this Courthouse just over 100 years ago, in June 1902, he described it as "the finest in the colony". The Courthouse was, and remains, a showcase for local stone and the skill of its builders.
However, the statue of Justice - which is directly above me - was imported from Italy. As Mayor Turner pointed out, the statue does not have a blindfold - the usual way the impartial processes of justice are portrayed. Although I am attracted to the Mayor's explanation, I like to think of this omission as symbolising the farsighted vision of the pioneering women who took up the law in this city and set the stage for those of us who have followed.

While it has always been hailed as one of finest examples of Victorian Gothic architecture in New Zealand, this building became woefully inadequate as the century progressed. There was far too little space, the lighting, ventilation and heating systems were antiquated, and there were doubts about the safety of the structure in an earthquake. Then seven years ago, as we have heard, the sword fell from the presiding statue of Justice - perhaps she was trying to tell us something!

Courts rebuilding programme

The renovation and extension of this historic courthouse represents a significant capital investment - about $11 million in total. The work is part of a major building programme being undertaken by the Department for Courts. It is an investment that - as anyone involved will tell you, not just here but around the country - has been a long time coming.

The Labour-led Government accepted the need to invest in rebuilding a largely neglected courts physical infrastructure. Nearly $80 million has been invested with new courthouses built in Manukau and North Shore Cities (Albany). And much-needed refurbishment work has been undertaken in court buildings throughout the country, from Kaitaia in the North, all the way South to this magnificent building we are celebrating today.

These days, people are demanding much higher standards from the public service. The new facilities in this courthouse symbolise that increasing sophistication, while the restoration of the old building shows commitment to the best aspects of our past.

Tribute to staff & community

For the renovations to take place, this building had to close for 14 months. This meant a move to temporary premises, which inevitably caused considerable extra work for staff and inconvenience for court users.

I would like to take this opportunity to pay a special tribute to the Dunedin court community - court staff, court users, lawyers, agencies, Judges, Justices of the Peace and Referees. You were all inconvenienced, to some degree. I thank you for your patience and tolerance.

And I especially thank you, and the people of Dunedin, for your enthusiasm for this project, which has made it all the more worthwhile.

Tribute to builders/designers

I also want to acknowledge the main contractor 'Lund South Limited' and the considerable skill and creativity of all those involved in the planning, design, restoration and building work.

The unique stone exterior was extensively restored, and the building's structure was strengthened to withstand earthquakes. With the interior upgrade, the design was kept as close as possible to the original - to the extent that the new interior archways have been placed slightly out of line to replicate mistakes made by the original builders!

Acknowledgement of Wilson Bailey

I would also like to take this opportunity to acknowledge Department for Courts Chief Executive Wilson Bailey who is due to finish in the role shortly. Wilson has worked tirelessly for the upgrade of court facilities and the refurbishment of this fine building owes much to his vision and fortitude.

New facilities

The public areas of the courthouse are now light and open, with plenty of space for court users to conduct their business in privacy. The staff offices have been extended and along with courtrooms equipped with the latest in computer technology.

As a sign of new trends in the way courts operate, rooms have been provided for mediation and settlement of disputes in a less formal setting than a courtroom.

These new rooms are in the two-storey extension at the rear of the old building, which now houses the Family and Civil Courts. This addition marks a significant milestone in the Court's history - it is a very long time since all the Dunedin courts have been housed under one roof. This will save much time and hassle for staff and those using the Family and Civil Courts. In the past, they had to go to two different buildings for different parts of the process.

On the advice of the Historic Places Trust, the design of the new part of the building deliberately does not imitate the style of the historic building, but instead is obviously contemporary. It was also carefully designed so as not to interfere with the historic facades on Stuart and Castle Streets - accordingly it is invisible from those streets.

Courts and the community

But in the end, a building - no matter how beautiful and historic - is only stone and steel. It is people who count. Our communities are changing, along with our attitudes to the legal system.

A story from this building's beginnings illustrates just how much our attitudes have altered. Before 1900, this was the site of the old Dunedin gaol. When the gaol was demolished to make way for the courthouse, the bodies of three executed prisoners buried here were exhumed. They were found to be buried standing up - which was, according to legend, to ensure they did not rest in peace. And they were facing the gate - so they would see freedom, but know they could not reach it!

Fortunately, we have moved on from those days, and the changes in our society demand responses from all of us, including Government. Even in institutions of great formality and tradition like the courts, this change is taking place.

We must never lose sight of the fact the court system is a vital part of our community, and our community is an integral part of our court system. Courts are often places fraught with life's dramas. Many people have, and will, come to this beautiful building in stressful, even traumatic circumstances. We must strive to ensure no gulf exists between communities and the courts - between people and a system that often holds vital elements of their lives and futures in the balance.

Government accepts that challenge. As our partners in the court system, you must accept that challenge too.

And now my immediate challenge is to unveil this plaque

It is now my great pleasure to declare the refurbished Dunedin Courthouse officially open!