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Fear for future of historic court - 15.07.2005

The closure and uncertain future of their 19th century courthouse has left Redfern people very unhappy. ELIAS JAHSHAN and NAMI KWON report. (Southside News Issue 3/2005 page 9)

Demolition could be on the cards for the heritage-listed Redfern courthouse which is now on the market.


Since its final sitting on April I S this year, the courthouse no longer has a magistrate and ceased to operate on May 20.


On the orders of the NSW Attorney-General, Bob Debus, services at Redfern were moved to the Downing Centre complex in the city, leaving behind a heritage-listed building which will be subject to the changes planned in the Redfern-Waterloo Authority (RWA).


The RWA will oversee the development in the area including two-thirds of the existing public housing, increasing the population by 40,000 and creating 20,000 jobs to meet the demands of Sydney's nearby expanding central business district.


Helen Campbell, director of the Redfern Legal Centre, said: "It is ridiculous to withdraw a service like the local court."


She said amore flexible approach would be to look at how to ensure the projected population had access to local court services."


"It's all about redevelopment and finding a way to hand public land over to developers," said Elizabeth Evatt, a Redfern resident of the past 10 years. "It's got. nothing to do with the area or helping the community. And even to suggest that it is, is really an insult to the people that live there."


However, John Sampson, a spokesman for Mr Debus, said that one of the key reasons for closing the. courthouse was an "inability to improve" the facility due to its heritage listing.


The 1896 courthouse is heritage listed by the City of Sydney but is not on the State Heritage Register.


Under the Redfern-Waterloo legislation, normal regulations concerning heritage listed items do not apply. The minister for Redfern-Waterloo, Frank Sartor, has the power to act as his own consent authority and to overrule the Heritage Act 1977.


The courthouse is estimated to be valued between $1 million and. $2 million by local real. estate agents, reported the Sydney Morning Herald. If the courthouse is sold, proceeds will go towards the Redfern-Waterloo Fund, which is being used to finance redevelopment in the area.


"A few million dollars, it's nothing ... it [the courthouse] can never be repurchased, it can never be bought back for the community" said local resident Ms Evatt.


The Redfern Legal Centre have made a huge effort to keep the courthouse open or at least to keep services in Redfern.


It asked that RWA Minister Frank Sartor consult with Mr Debris, to find alternatives.


One suggested by centre director Ms Campbell, was the possibility of moving services to another premises in Redfern, rather than to the Downing Centre.  


Mr Debris's office responded in a letter to the Legal Centre in March outlining the advantages of transferring the services. These included greater access to the Probation and Parole services, as well as access to Legal Aid, pro-bono legal assistance schemes run by the Bar Association and Law Society, and better support services for witnesses and domestic violence victims.


However, the Redfern Legal Centre was not convinced that these arrangements would result in the improvement of the services available to its clients.


Ms Campbell said at the time, the closure of the court would have the worst impact on women who seek restraining orders for domestic violence, as they would no longer have a local courthouse which was easy to get to for this application.


"We're already finding that there have been fewer women coming forward with applications since the court moved," said Ms Campbell:


Other reasons listed by the Legal Centre in its bid to keep the court open were that people needed easy access to services to settle neighbourhood disputes, they needed a place to deal with fines, debts and tenant disputes as well as having community justice centre mediation facilities nearby.


Ms Campbell also talked about the concern among local residents that they were losing the familiarity of a small-scale courthouse and being forced to travel to the multi-storey complex in the city.


The Legal Centre, which stayed open, now faces.. a new set of concerns.


Because of the Downing Centre's large-scale operations, they fear less personal services will be provided and this could "impede on the justice for many of the really disadvantaged people who live in this area, particularly for people who don't have solicitors to represent them," said Ms Campbell.


She also said that the Downing Centre complex would be daunting for people especially for those whose English was poor and who had difficulties in following signs.


She pointed out that the building in Redfern had only one court room and one counter. So provided you got to the front steps you could not really get lost.


It was far. from ideal but it served an important purpose, she. said.

The Downing Centre has put in place transitional arrangements, such as having all the Redfern cases in the same courtroom with the same magistrate. It is uncertain how long this will last.



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