Department of Justice failed to provide adequate opportunity for community comment on courtroom closure
Advice to Minister re Court closure-whether fair and accurate—need for standard criteria to be adopted and applied
On 13 June 1988 an arsonist struck at the Stratford Courthouse, an attractive colonial style building with an Historic Places Trust –CƠ classification, and the resultant damage was considerable. The Stratford community rallied round, initially to secure temporary accommodation for the Court then to fight the decision announced by the Associate Minister of Justice on 22 September 1988 to close the courthouse and transfer the service provided there to Hawera and New Plymouth. Two deputations led by the local Mayor were received by the Minister and further investigation of various options carried out by the Department, but the decision to close was confirmed on 24 November 1988. The Mayor complained to the Ombudsman in December 1988 on behalf of the Borough Council, that the advice from the Department of Justice to the Associate Minister of Justice leading to his decision to close the courthouse was inaccurate, misleading and based on mistakes of fact.
After examining the extensive documentation that had been provided by the Department, including the report of the Royal Commission on the Courts and a brief of specifications for a small courthouse, the Ombudsman considered the Department’s advice to the Associate Minister under six major headings: Fire Damage Assessment; Workload at Stratford Courthouse; Distance to Alternative Courts; Adequacy of Court Accommodation; Local Reaction and Costs. The Ombudsman’s staff attended the hearing of the complainants’ petition by the Justice and Law Reform Select Committee, and requested more detailed information on estimates of cost from the complainants, which had been prepared by a local accountant and solicitor.
On the basis of her analysis of the material, the Ombudsman considered that it was apparent that the main point at issue was whether the discrepancies in fact and interpretation between the information provided to the Associate Minister by the Department and by the Stratford submissions and deputations were significant in the decision-making process. Having considered the facts, and further submissions from the complainants, the Ombudsman formed the view that the discrepancies were not significant and that as a consequence the complaint could not be sustained. In forming that view the Ombudsman took account of the fact that the Department had apparently omitted to provide an opportunity for local input before the initial decision to close the courthouse had been taken. However, it seemed that the willingness of the Department and the Associate Minister subsequently to consider seriously the deputations’ submissions remedied to a large extent the procedural deficiency.
Nevertheless, in the course of the investigation the Ombudsman identified a second issue, namely, that the Department did not appear to have applied objective criteria to or to have consulted adequately with the local people over the decision to close the Court and the Ombudsman took this up with the Secretary for Justice as a separate complaint. It seemed desirable for the Department to apply a set of objective nationwide criteria to Courts closures so that the Department could operate and be seen to operate within an objective and consistent framework. The Department was able to provide a copy of a questionnaire prepared by staff during its handling of the Stratford closure, which addressed this concern, and proposed that in future cases of Court closures the Department use the questionnaire and provide a recommendation to the Minister for approval in principle after which an opportunity for public comment would be provided before a final decision was taken. On this basis the Ombudsman concluded that the steps the Department had taken to ensure that standard criteria would be applied in future when it was proposed to close a Court effectively resolved this aspect of the investigation.
This case note is published under the authority of the Ombudsmen Rules 1989. It sets out an Ombudsman’s view on the facts of a particular case. It should not be taken as establishing any legal precedent that would bind an Ombudsman in future.