Bendigo Law Courts fix 'urgent' as state budget nears

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THERE are calls for new purpose-built law courts at another location in Bendigo to address the city’s out-of-date justice facilities.

Legal groups are desperate for funding in this year’s state budget to upgrade the courts, which they say are placing victims of crime at risk.

The state government is currently prioritising funding ahead of next month’s budget, while local lawyers fear short-term solutions in the court precinct are having little effect on safety.

After repeated calls for safety upgrades, extra security guards were stationed throughout the precinct and no one can enter the old building without going through a scanner and metal detector in the new building.

Bendigo family law specialist Marika McMahon said the measure was having little effect, as offenders could simply pick up a weapon between the new and old courts.

The courts have no private conference rooms, extensive internal damage, a faulty lift, are regularly overcrowded and have one main entrance, meaning victims could come in contact with their perpetrators.

Ms McMahon said the new court, opened in 2014, was just a “band-aid” fix – the latest in a long line of temporary solutions.

“The old courts are not built for the way modern justice works, and add to the stress and anxiety of victims,” she said.

“More and more, I’m having clients tell me the courts are completely inappropriate.

“We now have the challenge of what would be the ideal use for the old building? It’s superb, but it’s not fit for what needs to be done.”

The courts have consistently topped the list for infrastructure priorities in Bendigo. Infrastructure Victoria’s 30-year report highlighted the urgent need for upgrades.

Court Services Victoria also identified court upgrades as an “immediate priority”.

Upgrading the law courts comes on top of calls to guarantee funding for Legal Aid and the city’s community legal centre, which both fear the effects of cuts.

ARC Justice executive officer Hayley Mansfield said the state government needed to ensure community legal centres had enough funding to continue to support victims of family violence.

She said they had a role to play in correcting federal cuts.

“Our message to the state government is that this budget needs to be one that ensures access to justice for vulnerable Victorians, particularly in light of Commonwealth government cuts,” Ms Mansfield said.

“We… commend and congratulate the government on their $572 million investment in housing, support services, specialist interventions for vulnerable children and other services to address family violence.

“It must be noted however that just $4.6 million of this $572 million investment has been allocated to legal services for those affected by family violence. 

“This is insufficient to address the reforms recommended by the Royal Commission and leaves many without vital legal support.”