13 Apr 2023

Ohakune courthouse still closed due to health, safety and security worries

7:06 pm on 13 April 2023
The Ohakune courthouse has been closed since September 2022 because of health, safety and security worries.

The Ohakune courthouse has been closed since September 2022 because of health, safety and security worries. Photo: Supplied / Ruapehu District Council

People attending monthly sittings at a central North Island courthouse could be killed or injured, and prisoners could escape, according to a newly released security probe into the out-of-action building.

The Ohakune courthouse, which sits once a month, has been closed since September because of health, safety and security worries.

Hearings have instead taken place at Taihape, more than 50 kilometres away, leading to concerns about access to justice, with one lawyer saying people have spent time in custody after they were arrested for not getting to court.

It was a situation Ruapehu mayor Weston Kirton said could continue.

But the Ministry of Justice cannot yet say when or if the Ohakune courthouse will reopen.

A ministry site security assessment from 2021, obtained by RNZ this week, identifies nine "key identified risks", including that judges, staff and others at court could be killed or injured due to "sub-standard facilities for screening members of the public and effectively and compliantly controlling prisoners on remand".

Other risks include the possibility of prisoners escaping due to "sub-standard or non-existent" facilities; someone jumping the public counter; a security officer suffering injury when responding to an alarm out of hours; and the lack of an enclosed parking area for judges.

It said the courthouse furniture was not secured to the ground, so could be used as a weapon.

There was no heating or clean water source, a "fragile" electricity system could kill or injure someone, and there was a risk of death or injury from a fire because there were no smoke alarms.

The report outlines ways to reduce the risks, such as installing metal detectors, building cells, installing a glass screen at the public counter, and tightening the way remand prisoners were handled.

It also recommends installing a smoke alarm and securing furniture to the floor.

The report said the courthouse sat once a month, hearing 20-30 cases a time.

It recommended considering halting hearings until the security concerns were dealt with.

Ministry deputy secretary for corporate and digital services Tina Wakefield said initial investigations indicated it would cost several million dollars to upgrade the courthouse.

"Any further security remediations will not be implemented until the permanent future direction of [the courthouse] is known."

Concerns about access to justice if courthouse stays closed - lawyer

Lawyer Anna Brosnahan said she had huge concerns about access to justice if the Ohakune courthouse remained closed.

She said she was aware of people due to appear in court who did not make their hearings in Taihape and then were arrested and spent time in custody, sometimes several days.

Brosnahan said she could not see a reason why a metal detector could not be installed for people entering the court.

"I don't have any personal concerns going to that courthouse and I think there could be a provision that we still use that courthouse and, potentially, when there are security risks then that particular file could be dealt with in another court where they have cells and better facilities.

"They're throwing the baby out with the bath water if they're not going to reopen it," she said.

Until a decision was made the community was in limbo.

Kirton said a courthouse was needed in the Ruapehu community, whether it was an upgraded Ohakune one or a new facility in a community centre in nearby town Raetihi.

"The expectation to move court sittings to places like Taihape or Whanganui is just unacceptable," he said.

Kirton had heard reports of one person spending 18 days in custody after they were arrested for missing an appearance in Taihape.

He said it was a hard ask for many people to get to court so far away if they did not have a driver licence, or were in an area not served by public transport.

Justice Ministry 'working through options' for Ohakune region court services

Ministry chief operating officer Carl Crafar said since the court's "temporary closure" officials had consulted on its future.

"The ministry has sought views from judiciary, lawyers, sector partners, local iwi, the New Zealand Law Society, and representatives of the local council as part of the consultation process," he said.

"Key themes among the feedback were concerns around the distance between Ohakune - and surrounding areas - and Taihape, travel difficulties for court participants, the inability for participants to attend court, the need for access to justice, and the view that an alternative arrangement is necessary for residents of these areas."

Crafar said lawyers had raised concerns about custodial remands of clients whose cases were transferred to Taihape, and warrants to arrest issued for those unable to travel to the town.

"Following the consultation period, the ministry has been working through options for the future of court services for residents of Ohakune and surrounding areas.

"The ministry cannot provide you with a timeframe for a final decision on the use of the facility as these options require significant investigation."