Death sentence at Whataroa

Chester Burrows: hoping to save $14 million over four years

It wasn’t long ago, so a story goes, when a nimble judge scrambled through an unlocked window to open the Whataroa Court.

Whether His Honour’s example impressed any assembled miscreants is not known, but after a red-faced policeman brought the wrong keys 142km from Greymouth to open the courthouse, the judge wasn’t messing about.

After all, in recent times Whataroa Court – in deepest Westland some 106km south of Hokitika and New Zealand’s most remote mainland court – has administered judicial business about four days a year for sometimes no more than 45 minutes at a time.

But there’s more to the version of the above story as told to NBR ONLINE the other day by courts minister Chester Borrows.

As is common on the Coast, an “official” different version tells how in the 1990s a judge found the court locked because the local policeman had been called away urgently.

“It was decided that justice must be seen to be done and, therefore, that the judge must force entry to the court,” the justice ministry records on its website.

“With the assistance of court staff, he was hoisted up the back wall, where he was able to force entry through a back window and climb in, to the delight of the assembled multitude of defendants yet to appear.”

“It is the only known example of a judge breaking and entering his/her own court,” the website proclaims.

Who knows, maybe both stories are true.

The last sitting

Last week district court judge John Strettell presided at the last sitting of Whataroa Court, watched over by Mr Borrows, who hopes to save $14 million over four years by closing district courts and putting more of their business online.

Whataroa and Warkworth, north of Auckland, are closed because there is not enough work for them. Fielding and Upper Hutt courts have been shut because of earthquake risk.

Courts in Dargaville, Waihi, Te Awamutu, Te Kuiti, Opotiki, Marton, Waipukurau, Oamaru and Balcutha will open only for hearings, and while 200 positions have been disestabished the justice ministry earlier said about 70 jobs would ultimately be lost.

Mr Borrows told NBR ONLINE the Whataroa courthouse was not subject to any Treaty of Waitangi settlement, would go on the market and would make an ideal restaurant, bar, tea rooms or arts and crafts centre.

Built in 1939, it remained busy but over the years lost business to the centrally located Greymouth court.

In the roaring 1870s the West Coast boasted 13 resident magistrates and court business was brisk as a small army of police officers dealt to a boisterous populace.

For last week’s final sitting Judge Strettell came from his home base in Christchurch.

Gone now are the days where justice was served with whipped cream and jam, as journalist Deirdre Mussen colourfully reported in 2011.

Popular day out

Telling how the “cute wooden courthouse offers a popular day out” from mainstream judicial work, Ms Mussen found everyone from Judge Paul Whitehead, prosecutor Sergeant Mark Harris, deputy registrar Donna Stanton, lawyer George Linder and local cop Paul Gurney all loved the courtroom and looked forward to working in it.

Then the last serving Whataroa policeman, Constable Gurney lived in the police house next door. Until a few years ago the front office of the courthouse was the police station.

His family’s pet sheep could be heard baa-ing when the court’s windows were open at lunchtime.

Lunches were a vital part of the day, Ms Mussen reported. It was when the judge, police, lawyers, probation officer and an odd reporter rubbed shoulders while sharing “hearty club sandwiches and sumptuous scones topped with cream and jam”.

“Sometimes that delicious West Coast delicacy, whitebait, is on the menu.”

No doubt from productive whitebait possies jealously guarded by a series of round-the-clock off-duty bobbies.

Ironically, the last case heard at Whataroa Court was "a whitebait matter".

Whataroa Court served an area from Jackson’s Bay to Harihari. The next closest courts were north at Greymouth or 404km south at Queenstown.

Once referred to by the justice ministry as the “precious jewel in the crown of the West Coast circuit”, Whataroa Court has received the ultimate terminal sentence.

While some of the closed courts have had partial reprieves by way of reduced sitting days, no such clemency has been extended to the little wooden courthouse at Whataroa, now waiting for a new owner and a new future.

Footnote: As is often the case, when one door closes another opens.

So it was last week when the Westland district licensing authority threw out a police objection to the Whataroa pub’s application for a temporary licence.

Police objected to the licence because the pub’s majority shareholder Dennis Dennehy was on bail on various unspecified charges which Mr Dennehy says he will strongly defend.

Reiterating a basic principle of justice, licensing agency chairman Cr Bryce Thomson said Mr Dennehy had not yet been found guilty of the charges.

The Grey Star reported Mr Thomson saying that in New Zealand Mr Dennehy was not regarded as guilty until the appropriate court had dealt with him so he could not uphold the police objection.

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1 Comment & Question

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If Mr Borrows wants to cut costs he could start with ensuring that Disputes Tribunal referees are doing their jobs effectively, or can at least be held accountable for being useless.

The cost of court appeals and rehearings due to tribunal referees not applying the substantial merits rule when making decisions on cases must be in the millions.

Many of these so-called referees shouldn't even be in their line of work.

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