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From the President : Last link in the chain

Every Issue

Cite as: (2003) 77(4) LIJ, p.4

The relocation of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to a permanent home in the former County Court building would enhance Melbourne’s legal precinct.

There has never been a better time for the state government to streamline the operation of the state courts. The former County Court building awaits a new tenant. In addition, there is no reason why we cannot have a single online computerised registry for Melbourne’s state courts.

For some time now the former County Court building on the corner of William and Lonsdale Streets has been locked up and only used for occasional overflow matters from other courts. The obvious use for this otherwise unused building, so strategically placed at the centre of Victoria’s legal precinct, is to house the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT).

VCAT is presently located in rented premises at 55 King Street. Users of this building will know that security is far from adequate. One example is lift access. VCAT shares the building with a private tenant and, unlike any other courts, members are required to share the lift with the public. Moreover, 55 King Street is nowhere near the legal precinct.

More members of the public come into contact with VCAT than any of our other courts. It is therefore hard to see any justification for these cases being heard in substandard premises outside the legal precinct. It is essential that facilities for the public be improved to reflect the importance of this tribunal, its workload and its interface with the general public.

The former County Court building is ideal for VCAT. It would be the last link in the chain to create a unique legal precinct for Melbourne. The Supreme, County, Magistrates’ and Children’s Courts are already located in the same area and the commonwealth courts comprising the High, Federal, Family and Federal Magistrates Courts are only one block away.

The Department of Justice, in conjunction with VCAT judicial members, has prepared a refurbishment proposal for this building. Under the proposal, existing courtrooms would be converted and in some cases subdivided into smaller VCAT hearing rooms and a further two floors added to ensure that all VCAT hearings could be conducted in the one building. The cost of this refurbishment is about $39 million. While this seems a lot of money, it is substantially cheaper than constructing a new facility. It is also more financially responsible than paying rent for a building which is neither well-located nor purpose-built for one of Victoria’s busiest jurisdictions.

The state government is intending to extend the lease at 55 King Street for a further five-year period while the future of the former County Court building is decided. Given the complexity and cost involved, it is unrealistic to expect this project to be approved in next month’s state budget. However, I hope that work would begin on developing the refurbishment proposal over the next two years so that this significant infrastructure project can be approved, undertaken and completed before the expiry of the current lease in 2008.

The need to complete the legal precinct extends to more than just bricks and mortar. Relocating VCAT would enable judges and court officials to be exchanged more readily with the new County Court building diagonally opposite. Being located close to the new County Court and the Magistrates’ Court would provide a secure court for VCAT when required.

However, there is another fundamental efficiency that could be gained by locating VCAT on this site. I would like to see it lead to the creation of a single registry for all Melbourne-based state courts. Currently, practitioners are required to deal with registries in each of the major court jurisdictions. This involves considerable duplication and delay. A common registry is operating well in Geelong and there is no reason why it could not also be duplicated in central Melbourne.

Let us hope the state government seizes the opportunity to bring efficiencies to our state courts through these two initiatives. Refurbishing the former County Court building would be a significant investment for future Victorians and provide the finishing touch to what is a unique and valuable legal precinct. At the same time, a single online computerised registry makes good sense and will surely result in cost savings for Victoria’s justice system.

Bill O’Shea

president@liv.asn.au

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