WHILE THE Law Society of Newcastle has labelled the amount of court resources for the region appalling, the New South Wales Attorney-General’s Department pointed to many improvements already undertaken.
To address what she believes is a shortfall in the current level of funding, Newcastle president Catherine Henry said a new court complex was required, consisting of a joint federal/state facility.
“The key point that we wish to communicate at the opening of Law Term is the fact that our court resources in Newcastle are appalling. They are limited to the extreme,” Henry told Lawyers Weekly.
The problem facing Newcastle stems from many sources, both state and federal, Henry said. This is why the Law Society is seeking a solution in the form of a combined federal and state court complex.
“We are agitating for a joint federal/state facility which would allow us to have proper infrastructure for federal cases, such as Family Court and Federal Magistrates Court work, but also which would allow the state courts and the state tribunals to have adequate resources,” Henry said.
Although NSW A-G Bob Debussaid the feasibility of a joint facility was currently being discussed with the Federal A-G’s Department, it would “obviously … be a major project and no decision will be made until the idea has been properly assessed”.
But in regard to court resources, Debus said a lot has already been done for rural and regional NSW.
“The Government is overseeing the largest ever investment in court and justice agency infrastructure in the history of NSW. The Hunter will be a major beneficiary of this program,” he said.
More specifically, Debus said Newcastle courts have already received funding for recent improvements, as well as a $9.6 million purpose-built Children’s Court in Broadmeadow.
“More than $1 million has been spent upgrading Newcastle courthouse in the last few years. Airport style x-ray screening facilities have been installed,” he said. “Fire safety and air conditioning systems have also been upgraded.”
Henry said the future of the Family Court was in doubt, with no confirmation on a new location following the end of its lease next year.
“The Family Court [has] never had a permanent home in Newcastle unlike other regional centres,” she said. Yet under the current inadequate system “Family Court judges and federal magistrates [do] not having space in their own building to conduct their work, and [have] to go across the road to the state courts to hear state cases”.
For Henry, a major frustration was that “a lot of work that is generated in Newcastle can’t be heard in Newcastle, because of the inadequate court facilities”.
“That work has to go to Sydney; that’s bad for Newcastle [and] it’s more costly for clients who have to pay for their lawyers to travel down to Sydney.”
Philip Ruddock acknowledged that the lease on the Family Court building was not due to expire until 2008. But in terms of the resources available to Newcastle’s federal courts, he said “the Government is looking at the long term needs of the region and working out how resources are best allocated”.