THE FUTURE of the Victorian Supreme Court redevelopment is being questioned after the Victorian budget failed to deliver enough funding for stage one of the revamp.
The 2008-09 Victorian budget, handed down by Treasurer John Lenders, promised a $198.3 million justice package inclusive of funding for Alternative Dispute Resolution initiatives, funding for improving Supreme Court efficiency, a package for additional security personnel and weapons screening at the Magistrates’ Court and $6.5 million to assist with the increasing workload of the Children’s Court.
But according to Tony Burke, president of the Legal Institute of Victoria, and Shadow Attorney-General Robert Clark, the justice package does not provide funding for the redevelopment of the Supreme Court, even though $29.2 million has been set aside to refurbish lower floors in the old County Court and $38 million to rebuild the mortuary service building.
Burke said the significant hole in funding around the state’s key legal infrastructure is obvious: “In a budget which emphasises the development of infrastructure in Victoria, the failure to increase funding for the Supreme Court building redevelopment is a missed opportunity which could adversely affect the economy in Victoria,” he said.
Victoria’s legal infrastructure is, according to a report by the Australian Government Productivity Commission released earlier this year, leaving Victorians with some of the slowest and most expensive courts in the country.
A spokesperson for the Victorian Attorney-General said the government has allocated $37.5 million for Stage 1 of the masterplan, including $22 million to fund an upgrade of the Supreme Court. But Burke said this isn’t the case: “The evidence is there in the budget,” he said. “The dollars are not available this year, although we’ve been urging and will continue to urge the Attorney-General and premier … that they need to commit to upgrading the Supreme Court, to ensure it’s properly resourced and can deal with complex multi-party civil litigation and criminal prosecutions.”
But there is dispute as to what such funding will cover. According to Burke, the money has been allocated to refurbishing the lower floors of the old County Court building, a building that has been in ‘mothballs’ for years. With the Supreme Court already undertaking its activities across five buildings, Burke said that if the old County Court is refurbished to cope with the additional load, than there will be further efficiency issues as it will spread the Court to a sixth building.
“It’s good to have some more facilities, but we’re sort of patching over the problem instead of dealing with the fundamental need for a purpose-built, modern court,” he said.
Clark agrees, claiming that the government has funded for stage two of the Supreme Court masterplan, rather than focusing on stage one — which was once identified as an urgent priority. “It seems the Attorney General has been unable to get government commitment to continue with the masterplan so he is now resorting to an ad-hoc piecemeal approach by putting funds into partial refurbishment of the old County Court building,” he said.
Meanwhile, both Burke and Clarke believe the funding for extra judges is a good response to a desperate need, but that the facilities available will be inadequate to support their requirements: “We do wonder where they are going to sit,” said Burke.