NZBA address at the ceremonial sitting of the opening of the no.1 High Court in Christchurch, 31 January 2018

E Nga Mana, E Nga Reo, E Nga Rau Rangatira
Tena Koutou katoa

When our number 1 High Court in the Tower first opened in 1989 the NZBA was very much in its infancy. This year we celebrate its 30th anniversary and membership recently surpassed the 1000 mark. Our members, indeed all who practice in advocacy have a very keen interest in our courts and have closely observed the development of this wonderful new court house.

There is no doubt this court is of special importance to counsel.  And the extraordinary capital investment is undoubtedly a reminder and reflection of the very significant and important work with which we as a profession engage. A few short weeks ago we celebrated the final sitting of our old High Court on the hallowed grounds over in Durham Street where justice had been administered in this City for nigh on 150 years. We reflected, as Justice Young has this afternoon on the inspiring and unique history of our High Court.  We reflected on the significance of that special site and we fondly remembered many of our great judges and advocates, some of our infamous cases and I am sure we all felt a very strong sense of pride in our profession with its rich history and tradition.

And that puts in context the opportunity that the opening of this court presents to us all.  What will be said of the rich history of this court when its time is up?  Will the speakers of the day recall with genuine fondness and pride the treasured history of this, the 2018 High Court. 
I have confidence they will.  

There has of course been some apprehension about such a monumental development as a Justice Precinct. The legal profession, the justice process, the law generally is, quite properly cautious about change.  I think we quite rightly are concerned that innovation and modernism can have the unintended consequence of eroding fundamental rights.  And so there is some apprehension about operating out of a brand new modern premise, part of a precinct, a court without the physical, tangible reminders,  reflections of our history, with significant AVL facilities encouraging of remote appearances, with a jury box that is split 8:4.

There is a strong case to argue that practising law and administering justice on a site, and in a court adorned with a reminder of our history and tradition, as has always been the case, operates as a natural preservative of our history. And as we celebrate our future in this grand building, one designed without those tangible links to our past, we, as counsel, have a heavy obligation, to ensure that we do not allow this milestone to mark a break from our rich history.

Justice Young has referred to the light and airy caricature. I too tend to favour the alternative. There is a risk that, new, light and airy, might tend to drift towards light and breezy, a more informal environment and a concurrent risk the essential respect and formality this court rightfully demands is diluted.  

An awareness and appreciation of tradition and history can promote and encourage high standards, adherence to our overriding obligations, our commitment to the rule of law and respect for legal process, for legal history. This is an important occasion for justice in Canterbury but it is not a fresh start or a clean slate.  This is very much a continuum of a proud past, albeit in these most impressive surrounds.  Which only serves to remind us of the importance of our role as counsel to ensure we maintain the highest standards.

Today also serves as an opportune time to remind ourselves of the important role that the courts play in our society.  Justice is said to be the legal or philosophical theory by which fairness is administered. And the fair administration of justice requires that except in extraordinary circumstances justice must be administered in an open court, a public court.  We practise in an age where our courts, our justice system is routinely subjected to what I would describe as quite unfair and misguided criticism.  There is a perception that our courts conduct business in private courtrooms isolated from, inaccessible and incomprehendable to the man or woman on the street.  This is far from the truth. 

To its great credit, it is difficult to conceive how the Ministry could have done more to ensure that this courthouse and all its courts are seen as open and public.  Air conditioning, comfortable seating in public areas, wifi, a café and a strong emphasis on providing a safe and secure environment. It is welcoming. It is light and airy. It is certainly not intimidating. This is without question an open and public court for the people of Canterbury and beyond.  And that is vitally important.

And this particular court is special, and I think it appropriate this court is properly recognised as our number 1 High Court. Tangible recognition, by way of signage, far more prominent, permanent and distinguished signage than is presently the case, both internally and externally of the court building, and I encourage colleagues to refer to this, as our number one High Court.  I was comforted Chief Justice to see that your invitation to this sitting made that recognition.

And on the topic of labels, I do sense a degree of discomfort that the “justice precinct” label fails to recognise the separation of powers prescribed by the Constitution Act.  A court quite independent of the legislature and of the executive.  To refer to this building as a court house rather than a part of a precinct can only enhance the prospect that the public appreciate that this courthouse stands strong and independent.

Your honours, I congratulate our registrar Sharon Graham and all the registry staff for making a smooth transition to the new court and it is appropriate to recognise the significance in having both Helen Vermuelen and Keppel Smith presiding as court takers today they being the only registry staff who have performed that vital role in our original Supreme Court, our tower block court and now this our new number one High Court. You are part of our history. Congratulations to you both for your service to our senior court.

So yes this is indeed a day of great celebration.  An occasion to reflect on the very proud history of the High Court in Christchurch and of our privilege, honour and responsibility to be associated with our new High Court.

May it please the Court.

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