Back Home 5 News 5 Waitākere joins the list of dilapidated, mouldy and unsafe courthouses; ministry makes no promises on timing for new building

Waitākere joins the list of dilapidated, mouldy and unsafe courthouses; ministry makes no promises on timing for new building

5 Apr 2024

| Author: Rod Vaughan

It doesn’t get much worse than this.

Judges parking their cars at the Waitākere District Court in West Auckland are being forced to use the same space as prison vans dropping off and uplifting custodial offenders, with the judges’ licence plates on clear display. Waitākere courthouse staff complain that leaky ceilings and roof make them reluctant to turn on light switches when it rains for fear of electrocution. And the courthouse toilets become blocked so quickly that staff and visitors are being forced to use one-ply toilet paper and have been asked by their landlord to limit their trips to the loo. Adding insult to injury, the toilet cubicles are too small for the court’s larger security guards who have been forced to make “special arrangements” when nature calls.

Waitākere is the latest to join the list of toxic and unsafe upper North Island courthouses.

Three years ago, LawNews revealed that several South Auckland lawyers were battling debilitating respiratory illnesses after being exposed to toxic mould at the Pukekohe courthouse, with one being admitted to hospital and unable to work.

They were highly critical of the Ministry of Justice for failing to remove mould at the Pukekohe and Papakura courthouses in a timely manner and keeping people working there in the dark about the health risks.

More recently, others have been equally scathing about the appalling state of the Rotorua and Tauranga courthouses where users complained they had been “pulling their hair out for years and years” to remedy “disgraceful” conditions.

Now, a senior Auckland barrister is turning up the heat on the ministry to urgently replace the Waitākere courthouse which she says is not fit for purpose.

Julie-Anne Kincade KC, vice president of The Law Association and convenor of its Criminal Law committee, laid it on the line after being shown around the building by Judge Lisa Tremewan and ministry officials. Kincade says there are several serious health and safety issues and a new courthouse is urgently required. Given that it could take 10 years to complete construction, she believes an interim structure should be built as a temporary measure.

“It is simply too long for Waitākere to have to continue in the current location,” she says. “Waitākere District Court is dilapidated and too small which means there are genuine concerns for those who are forced to use that building, including the judges, the court staff and court users. I recently went to Christchurch and the difference between the Waitākere District Court and Christchurch actually nearly made me weep.”

Kincade points out that Waitākere is not only the fourth busiest in New Zealand but also serves one of the largest and fastest growing areas in Auckland. Its population has grown by 16% in recent years to around 311,636.

“The court itself is not just a criminal and family court. They also deal with civil cases, disputes and tenancy. It is also a court that engages with youth via the Rangatahi and Pasifika courts, both on- and off-site.”

And Waitākere houses the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court, the Right Track Court for drivers and the Māori Land Court.

Kincade has highlighted several areas of concern at the courthouse.

“The area where the prison vans enter and leave and where the judges park is the same. As a result, custodial prisoners are regularly walking up and down in the same confined car park area as the judges are parking and getting in and out of their cars, with their licence plates clearly visible to the prisoners.

“How this situation has been the case for such a long period of time without an incident occurring is more a case of good luck than good design. It is surprising that there has neither been an escape by a prisoner nor an assault on a judge.”

Kincade is also concerned about the cell area which she says is too small. “There are insufficient cells to ensure young people are kept away from adult offenders and the conditions are generally untenable. If there is any air conditioning in that area, it does not work. On the day that I visited in winter, it was unbearably hot. The men had the communication doors open in the cells to allow for air circulation and they were literally hanging out of the communication hatch.

“This also allowed them to interact with each other, something which often should not be happening for a variety of reasons, but obviously the right decision had been made that ventilation was more important.”

She says the overcrowded cells which are often occupied by people with mental health or addiction issues are a recipe for trouble. “The fact that [trouble] has so far been avoided is only down to the humanity and good sense of the men and women working there. I was relieved to leave the area after only being in there for five minutes.

“I speak as someone who has more than 30 years’ experience of being in cell areas and this was one of the worst I have seen. The working conditions of Corrections are unacceptable and the conditions that people are being held in breach the basic standards that we expect in New Zealand for custodial prisoners.”

Kincade says yet another issue is the state of the courthouse roof. “The roof has been leaking for years and this has undermined the building in several ways. There are rooms where it is too dangerous to turn on the lights as the electricity supply has been impacted by the flooding and there are several areas where the carpet has been removed and there is bare floor with carpet glue still apparent.”

Mould is also an issue. “There is plastic wall covering to prevent users being contaminated with mould and the walls themselves are cracked and peeling. I am told that it is not unusual to see blisters in the paintwork full of water after a big rain event. This is all over the building and includes the public areas.”

Kincade says despite some repairs to the roof, it is still leaking. “Even if it was now completely fixed, the concern is that it is simply too late and the impacts of the constant leaking have undermined the integrity of the building so that it is not safe.

“The court users and staff report that they do not feel safe in the building after rain as they are concerned about either being electrocuted and/or that there are slipping hazards. It is only due to the constant vigilance of the staff working there, who are constantly mopping up, placing signs to warn of hazards and using and monitoring dehumidifiers that a serious accident has been so far avoided.

“It is unacceptable that they are constantly obliged to ensure that their workplace is safe in this way.”

Limit loo trips

Yet another area of concern are the courthouse toilets which Kincade says are constantly blocked.

“This includes all toilets on all floor levels – not just one or two. The staff have been asked to use one-ply toilet tissue to try and prevent this from happening. They were also even recently asked if they might use the toilets less [frequently] by the landlords’ agents. This is frankly farcical and obviously unacceptable.”

Kincade says most of the toilet cubicles are so small that they are unusable by a number of staff, especially large security guards. “These men are forced to make special arrangements for toileting.”

In summary, Kincade says the courthouse is just too small and no longer fit for purpose. “The court can easily have between 800 and 1000 people a day present in the building. It often has high-profile cases with media in attendance and grieving family members and so on. But the size of the court building creates a health and safety issue.

“At present, they are forced into a small, communal area. There are not enough interview rooms for the lawyers to use and certainly no realistic options but to sit within feet of the ‘other side’ and their families or supporters.”

Asking for trouble

Kincade says court staff are forced to walk through the public areas with sensitive court files as there is no other way to deliver them from the registry to the courtrooms.

“This is simply asking for trouble. As it is, the police serve the bail bonds on people and obtain their signatures, unlike in every other court where this is done, as it should be, by court staff. This is a choice that has had to be made, given the concern of risks to court staff serving bail bonds, and they are grateful for the support of the police in doing this.

“The reason for that is that court staff have to again walk through public areas to serve the bail bond and this is felt to be unsafe.” Yet another issue in the courthouse is the lack of space for remote audio-visual links for victims.

“I am aware of an occasion when a judge’s chambers was used. This meant the judge was obliged to physically interact with the complainant/victim in a way that could impact on the defendant’s fair trial rights.

“As lawyers, we are encouraged to seek more cases being disposed of by way of judge-alone trials but how can this be done where the court building is not sufficiently equipped to even deal with trials such as using audio-visual links?

“In these post-covid days, more and more witnesses give evidence in this way and to not have this dedicated facility at all, never mind more than one room with this capacity, leads to issues with trial listing and adds to delays, churn and backlog.”

Not surprisingly, Kincade is full of admiration for court staff who have to work in such an environment.

“I commend the court staff and Corrections who are doing their very best in these difficult conditions. The fact that they even tolerate it, often at modest remuneration levels, is testament to their dedication. However, I do not believe that they should be placed under these pressures which can and should be the responsibility of the ministry.

“I implore [the ministry] to act immediately. Show the Waitākere District Court users that you take their health and wellbeing seriously. Please reassure them that the construction of a new court building is meaningfully underway.”

‘Priority project’

Secretary for Justice Andrew Kibblewhite says he shares Kincade’s concerns about serious shortcomings at the Waitākere District courthouse and replacing the current leased building with a new purpose-built facility is a priority project for the ministry.

“The ministry is working to address the longstanding underinvestment in its property portfolio,” he told Kincade in a letter. “The significant investment required to improve the state of the ministry’s property portfolio, and the fiscally constrained environment all government agencies find themselves in, means any new spending needs to be carefully prioritised.

“Alongside a new Waitākere District Court, the ministry’s other priority projects in Auckland include building a new courthouse in Papakura, recladding and seismic work at Auckland District Court and expanding the capacity at Manukau District Court.

“As part of our planning for Waitākere, we have purchased a new site at 16 Edmonton Road [Henderson]. Ownership of this site allows us to develop plans and costing for a new courthouse. However, courthouses are large, specialised buildings which take a significant amount of time to design and build. The timing of the new courthouse is also dependent on future funding decisions.”

Kibblewhite says the ministry is not considering setting up interim premises for Waitākere District Court, as sought by Kincade.

“The difficulty, costs and development timeframe involved in finding and fitting out a new building mean an interim building is not a practical option. However, we will continue to alleviate the issues you have raised as much as possible until a new building can be constructed. The ministry leases the building that houses Waitākere District Court and as such we are limited in our ability to update or change the building.”

Kibblewhite says the ministry is working with the landlord to improve the condition until a new courthouse can be built.

“We have monthly meetings with the landlord to focus on improving the condition of the building and they have been responding positively to the concerns that have been raised, including in relation to plumbing and weathertightness problems at the courthouse. In recent months the landlord completed repairs to the roof and work on the sealing and tinting of the windows. The ministry is regularly undertaking testing to ensure the building’s air quality.”

Kibblewhite says the latest report, from 28 September 2023, shows the air quality was generally comparable to, or better than, the average outdoor air quality in the Auckland region.

Further remedial work was planned which included painting and replacing water-damaged carpets and wood panelling in the courtrooms.

“The landlord and the ministry are investigating work to improve the usability, and fix plumbing issues, in the bathrooms.

We have engaged consultants to prepare designs to upgrade the bathrooms, including larger cubicles. The root cause of the issues with the building’s plumbing is being diagnosed with a view to resolving these issues during the bathroom upgrades.”

Kibblewhite says one of the problems with the building is that the number of occupants has increased substantially over time, adding to the pressure on building services.

“To reduce occupancy numbers within the building, the ministry has leased office space next door through to 2031, to align with the current courthouse’s lease. The ministry takes the health, safety and security of all people who enter our sites very seriously. We have invested over the years in improving both technical and operational security, including investment in additional court security officers (CSOs).

“In recent years, the Courts Security Act 1999 was updated to further empower CSOs to proactively manage disturbances with lower-level offending to front-foot events to ensure health, safety and security of all people. CSOs engage with all visitors to the courts, while providing a security presence, responding to security incidents and completing building checks and patrolling the premises.”

Kibblewhite says the number of court visitors who came through security screening at Waitākere District Court has averaged 503 per day. Court staff and CSOs work with the judiciary and other sector partners and agencies to address and manage security risks.

“The New Zealand Police and Department of Corrections are responsible for people in custody and they have robust processes in place, including when escorting people, to ensure control at all times. The ministry has invested in regional health and safety business partners who visit the different courts and provide advice and assistance to staff and managers around health and safety events, as well as dedicated judicial security managers who provide additional security support for the judiciary.

“I acknowledge that the situation at Waitākere District Court will require ongoing monitoring and management while we work towards the longer-term solution. Please rest assured that we are doing everything we can to progress the development of a new courthouse while managing the existing building issues.”

Asked for her response to Kibblewhite’s comments, Kincade said: “It’s disappointing for all of those people, from security staff to the judges and everyone in between, that they have to carry on tolerating such poor working conditions. There are serious health and safety concerns for the people who work there and also we go on about mental health of people but yet allow these intolerable working conditions to carry on.”

District Court Chief Judge Heemi Taumaunu declined to comment on the issue.

Utter disgrace

Victims advocate Ruth Money is scathing about the state of courtrooms around the country and says the issues Kincade has raised are not unique to the Waitākere District Court. “The state of many buildings is an utter disgrace. Most of our court environments are miserable, unsafe and unhealthy,” Money says. “Mould, leaky roofs, AVL that doesn’t work or is nonexistent, being asked to refrain from using a toilet and/or only using one-ply paper! Seriously, how can we expect the users of the court system to have respect for it when the ministry clearly doesn’t?”

Money says there are amazing humans working in the most awful conditions with no light at the end of the tunnel. “They deserve detailed information regarding timing, plans and commitments as to their workplace conditions.  The community users deserve the same. We should be in a position like other countries where they are renovating their already-functioning courts for improvements such as secure leading-edge digital technology and separate entries for victims and defendants.

“But alas, here in Aotearoa we are too busy with buckets mopping up roof leaks and expecting staff to find a toilet cubicle that they can actually fit into! How can the ministry not be horrified and take immediate action regarding this?” she asks.

Money says the dire situation is the result of years of mismanagement and underfunding. “We are a small country which has the ability, and should have the agility, to be transformative and technologically advanced. We should have a court system that is best-practice, and that we are proud of. However, the reality is the extreme opposite.”

Money says the Ministry of Justice has been spending only $36 million a year, or 0.5% of portfolio value, on infrastructure.

“For good stewardship this should be 4% and yet in Andrew Kibblewhite’s letter back to Julie-Anne he says, ‘the ministry is working to address the longstanding underinvestment in its property portfolio.’

“Excuse me, you guys put yourselves, and therefore us as court users, in this position after years of mismanagement. This has not just happened overnight so who was responsible for this negligence and what was done about it?  It is disingenuous to imply that this debacle is somehow linked to a ‘fiscally constrained environment’. This is a result of infrastructure underspend for many, many years.”

Money says at the end of the day courts are emotionally charged and traumatic venues even without these additional challenges.

“How on earth are people supposed to feel valued and respected in these environments? Many court staff have told me that if ministry staff and court management staff had to deal with what they navigate every day, then things would improve with speed.

“It is said that management and ministry do not appreciate the challenges that the dilapidated and dangerous buildings cause because they are not having to work around them like the staff, lawyers and community-based users do.” ■

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1 Comment

  1. Maxine Pitch

    Many years ago I was on the Courts committee and at that tie the land at 16 Edmonton was to have been purchase (or had been) for a new Waitakere Court it seems disingenous for Andrew Kibblewhite to now introduce it as a “new” purchase.

    Reply

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