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Class act on William

News

Cite as: December 2013 87 (12) LIJ, p.20

Three years down the track, the William Cooper Justice Centre is meeting changes in demand and population. By Carolyn Ford 

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A little over three years since the William Cooper Justice Centre (WCJC) was officially opened, it is fulfilling its promise as a multi-function, modern-day court facility.

After sitting empty for many years, cloaked in scaffolding and in the shadow of a rooftop crane for part of that time, the court complex at 223 William Street, on the corner of William and Lonsdale streets, in the heart of the city’s legal precinct, opened on 6 October, 2010. Then Attorney-General Rob Hulls listed its facilities – six new courtrooms and rooms for mediation, at a refurbishment cost of $43 million.

“The restoration of this old icon sets the tone for the future of Victoria’s modern court system – multi-jurisdictional, open and accessible,” Mr Hulls said of the building dating back to 1968. “This new courthouse . . . represents the dawn of a new era typified by strong, unified courts that are accessible, efficient and modern.”

The multi-jurisdictional court building, which housed the County Court until the Court moved into new premises in 2002, was named for the pioneering Indigenous rights campaigner, William Cooper. Mr Cooper was a Yorta Yorta man born in the 1860s who founded the Australian Aborigines League, which was the first political organisation for Aborigines. He helped establish the Day of Mourning which helped foster modern events recognising the contributions of Aboriginal Australians. In 1938, Mr Cooper led a protest of Aboriginal people who walked to the German consulate in Melbourne to denounce the treatment of European Jews by the Nazis.

Mr Cooper’s grandson, Uncle Boydie Turner, helped unveil a plaque at the building’s opening. From that time, it met an urgent need for more modern and easy-to-access space for Victorian courts including the Supreme Court, Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal and other courts as required.

The jewel in the crown is a mega-court on level three. The state of the art large-scale litigation space is capable of accommodating royal commissions and class actions, which ordinarily require substantial space to accommodate multiple counsel, equipment, members of the media and the public. On the floor above are supporting conference rooms, retreat and counselling rooms and media facilities.

The mega-court was further developed in 2012 when the state government was looking for a venue for the Kilmore East bushfire trial presided over by Justice Jack Forrest. The class action, which continues, has involved thousands of victims, about 40 counsel (50 can be seated) and evidence has been taken from more than 30 experts about 11 separate areas of expertise. There is public seating for up to 100 people and the witness dock can accommodate eight people. The 600-square metre court has three large TV screens to ensure everybody in court can see evidence being led, and a dismountable jury box to make room for more counsel.

Previously, very large trials were run in the County Court and Federal Court but the facilities were not always available. In November last year, Attorney-General Robert Clark said of the mega-court in the WCJC: “This will not only ensure that parties involved in very large trials are able to obtain a timely hearing of their case, it will also mean that Victorian courts will be an increasingly attractive forum for major commercial litigation”.

Designed by V Arc Architects and built by construction company Hansen Yuncken, the WCJC boasts upgraded security and reception facilities, energy and emissions-saving features and meeting and mediation rooms for the courts’ increasing use of alternative dispute resolution. The energy-saving features of this green building, which has a four-star energy rating, include water savings through efficient fittings and rainwater harvesting. There are solar panels on the roof and natural light pours in through glass walls in courts, and the timber used is native renewable species.

“The building is encased in glass and is light and very stylish. The water harvesting is estimated to save up to 18,400 kilolitres of water a year and C02 emissions are lowered by 470 tonnes per annum with the energy-saving measures in the building,” said WCJC facilities manager Geoffrey Davine.

Mr Davine said the building was stripped back, with the removal of asbestos complete. And care has been taken to preserve some original features such as court benches under the principle of restore where possible, replace when necessary.

“There has been a lot of thought put into this. It was built on a very tight budget. It is designed to be modern in look and feel, and flexible. It’s comfortable and it works.”

The façade of the smart 16-storey building, when viewed from opposite, features a multi-story glass curtain etched in red with the Lady of Justice, arms outstretched, watching over the court precinct.

The building provides a link between the Supreme Court, the Magistrates’ Court and the County Court, presenting a unified court system. Each corner on the William-Lonsdale streets axis houses a court, with 223 William Street providing a flexible, open space for the jurisdictions to use.

What was not known fully at the outset was how successfully the WCJC would meet the needs of Victoria’s increasingly stretched court system. But three years down the track, it is meeting changes in demand and population.

Tenants, on levels above the courts, include the Judicial College of Victoria, the Magistrates’ Court, Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunals Human Rights Division and Court Services.

Martin Hyde, a principal partner at Maurice Blackburn, which is acting for victims of the 2009 Kilmore East fires, said the custom-designed venue was an excellent one and the trial had been going very well from the point of view of the physical environment.

“We think the facility is an excellent one and it has been going very well. There is plenty of room for everyone. Interest ebbs and flows, but there was lots of room at the opening,” Mr Hyde said.

“Group members have been able to follow the case because it has been live-streamed to them at various points, opening and closing, and those facilities have worked very well. We have had positive feedback.”

Mr Hyde said members of the court needed to become accustomed to the technology available – no paper documents put to witnesses, for example. Instead, documents appear on a screen, which an operator zooms in on.

“Practitioners are able to annotate on their computers and judges can do the same,” he said, adding a benefit of the largely paperless court was speedier proceedings.

“The Supreme Court of Victoria needed a big modern court like this one and it is working well, so it is a good thing for Victorian practitioners that we have this modern electronic facility that can handle big class action trials.”

The Kilmore East bushfire trial is due to finish early 2014, opening the way for other large litigation to occupy the mega-court at 223 William Street.

While there is no empirical evidence to support any claims about a class action boom in Australia, if there is an upswing, Victoria is ready in the WCJC.

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