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Mouldy and leaky courtrooms threaten access to justice, lawyers say

23 Feb 2024

| Author: Rod Vaughan

Serious concerns about the dire condition of courthouses in the upper North Island are once again being raised by members of the legal fraternity. The issue was first highlighted by LawNews nearly three years ago when several Auckland lawyers revealed they were battling debilitating respiratory illnesses after being exposed to toxic mould at the Pukekohe courthouse, with one being hospitalised and unable to work.

These lawyers were highly critical of the Ministry of Justice for failing to remove mould at the Pukekohe and Papakura courthouses in a timely manner and for keeping those working there in the dark about the health risks. As a result, they said their health and safety had been seriously compromised by stachybotrys mould which, according to medical literature, can trigger respiratory, dermatological, eye and constitutional problems.

Overseas research has also implicated toxic mould in the onset of Type 3 Alzheimer’s disease in some people. Now, it seems, the issues are not confined to Pukekohe and Papakura. Rotorua criminal lawyer Andrew Hill says the court there is “an absolute disgrace” while the Tauranga courthouse, where he also appears, is not much better. Court users had been “pulling their hair out for years and years”, Hill said.

Five years ago, Rotorua Crown solicitor Amanda Gordon described the court’s cells as “feral”, saying the conditions were so bad they risked witnesses being put off coming to court to give evidence. Gordon told The Rotorua Daily Post that justice had been compromised as a result of a district court trial being adjourned because the cells were not big enough to hold the defendants due to a High Court trial being held at the same time. Hill says there are numerous problems in Rotorua, with four upstairs courtrooms in poor shape. “Court 4 is the main jury trial courtroom. Problems in there include a leaking roof and you can literally see water blisters in the roof. I’ve seen buckets in the courtroom catching water coming through the ceiling. I have also heard water running through the walls, like a shower, right behind where the jury sits. When it rains hard, you can hardly hear what is being said by witnesses because the noise is so loud.”

He says on one occasion he witnessed a large light fitting fall out of the ceiling, nearly hitting the prosecutor. Hill believes “cramped and horrible” conditions in the courthouse are responsible for a huge turnover in staff. “This harms the administration of justice because new people are constantly being trained and that built-up knowledge amongst the staff is lost. The court runs so much more efficiently when you have an experienced registrar helping the judge.”

Hill says there are also bad problems with the IT systems in the court, especially with CCTV links to defendants and complainants. “I’ve been in multiple trials where there have been IT issues and we’ve had to cut the link and get techs in to try and fix it. Normally, a fix can be found within 20 to 30 minutes but it’s highly disruptive to court business. “The point is that the court was never designed with modern IT requirements in mind. The court has simply added patch after patch and, unsurprisingly, the system fails a lot.”

Hill also cites deficiencies with witness rooms, toilets and cells in the courthouse. “The public toilets and toilets out the back for lawyers are pretty horrible while the cells downstairs are cramped, cold concrete boxes and basically third world. I appreciate the public might not have a lot of sympathy for prisoners or defendants but everyone needs to be treated with respect.”

He says even judges working in the building are not exempt from the problems. “Black mould in the judges’ tea-room had to be cleaned about three to four years ago. God knows what other parts of the building are like if they bothered to look.” Hill is quick to point out that such shortcomings are not confined to Rotorua. “Tauranga is just as bad. I’ve appeared in a jury trial in Tauranga where a fire alarm went off in the cells and flooded the entire courtroom. The trial had to be moved to a different court because, literally, water was coming up past the desks.”

 

Intolerable burden

Victims’ advocate Ruth Money is equally scathing about the state of court buildings in the upper North Island. “They’re not fit for purpose,” she told LawNews. “The vast majority of them can be described as dilapidated old buildings.

The state of disrepair, combined with the poor design with respect to layout and facilities, retraumatises all parties and the result is an alienating and distressing environment for all – including for the staff who work in them.” Money says health and safety issues in courtrooms are putting an intolerable burden on a justice system that is already under immense pressure from staff shortages and crippling caseloads. “Judges, lawyers and court staff have all been getting ill and you can’t help but worry that at least some of that is due to the mould situation throughout many of the court buildings, let alone the stress of the mahi and the current caseloads. It is irresponsible management to expect better justice outcomes when hearings are delayed because of leaking, flooding, mouldy and decaying buildings. The delays further exacerbate people’s mental and physical health challenges.”

Money says if the courts were run by private enterprise, there would likely be a government inquiry into a mismanaged and dysfunctional justice system. “But alas, such negligence is repeated year after year with no accountability. It is often said that the justice system is the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff and we need to go upstream to address the social and educational challenges, for example. While I don’t disagree with that sentiment, our current justice system is not at all an ambulance, but rather a place that harms more often than it heals.” So what is being done to address the dire conditions in many of the courthouses? If Ruth Money and Andrew Hill are to be believed, very little.

“People have been reporting these issues for many, many years and yet we feel like we have not been heard,” says Money. “Justice as a total portfolio has been neglected and most certainly the courts are a case in point. While there have been some budgets allocated to modernise and maintain courts, these have been either mismanaged or deferred and we are now past the point of crisis that we have previously reported. “The only word for it is negligence. Both access to, and the administration of, justice should be pillars of society, but instead the sad reality is that both are literally crumbling at our feet.” Hill shares this view. “Justice is a low priority for governments and they do something only once there is a crisis,” he says. “It’s a lack of forward thinking and planning. No Western democracy will function very well without the rule of law and access to justice. The simple truth is that running the justice system properly costs money and successive governments just have not invested in it.”

As for himself, Hill says he just “boxes on” and does the best he can. “It’s slightly depressing but you get used to it. It’s almost like everyone has resigned themselves to the facility being horrible.” ■

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