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Historic building to get modern makeover

News

Cite as: (2005) 79(7) LIJ, p. 20

The state government has released plans for upgrading Melbourne’s legal precinct, beginning with a dramatic refurbishment of the Supreme Court building.

The state government’s vision for the future of Melbourne’s legal precinct includes a major redevelopment of the Supreme Court building that will see new modern courtrooms and a glass roof enclosing the courtyard.

State Attorney-General Rob Hulls released on 19 May the three-stage Melbourne Legal Precinct Masterplan that will be implemented one stage at a time over the next 10 to 20 years.

Under the plan, stage one will be the redevelopment of the Supreme Court building, which will produce more courtrooms, better facilities to run complex trials and an expansion of the old High Court building.

Stage two will see the adaptation of the former County Court building on the corner of William and Lonsdale Streets as a Magistrates’ Court annex.

In stage three, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal will move from its current home at 55 King Street to the legal precinct at 330-360 William Street.

The aim of the masterplan is to bring all the major courts for the state and federal jurisdictions within one block of Melbourne’s central business district on William Street between Lonsdale and La Trobe Streets.

A spokeswoman for Mr Hulls said the completion of the three-stage project depended on when the money was allocated in future Budgets.

However, Supreme Court Chief Justice Marilyn Warren told the LIJ that she was hopeful the first stage of the plan – the redevelopment of the Supreme Court building – would begin in 2008.

Chief Justice Warren also said that the plans for the 121-year-old building put to rest any talk of a new building for the Supreme Court.

“The building is becoming tired and it is not a case anymore of simply saying ‘it is the Supreme Court, it has always been there’,” she said.

“The fact remains that we have other jurisdictions who are our immediate and close neighbours who have modern and state-of-the-art facilities.

“Hence there is an expectation within the legal profession that as much as lawyers love the Supreme Court building – it is where we all start out, where we all become solicitors – it’s time for the Supreme Court to be brought up to standard.”

The plans for the Supreme Court come after years of lobbying by the Supreme Court and the legal profession for upgraded facilities.

The plans by architect Billard Leece Partnership call for the main Supreme Court building to be remodelled to provide eight non-jury civil courts on the ground level and one existing civil court to be retained on the first floor.

These courts, some of which have long been maligned for lacking modern facilities, will be restored with airconditioning, cabling and state-of-the-art audio/visual facilities.

However, existing courtrooms 5, 6, 7, 7B, 8 and 9 will be lost under the plans and, in some cases, demolished to accommodate administration and public access.

New courtrooms will be built as part of a reconstruction and extension of the old High Court building next door to the Supreme Court in Little Bourke Street.

Under the plans, the current two-storey building will have six floors added above it. These new floors will contain 11 new criminal courts and judges’ chambers.

The existing two floors will be remodelled to hold six more civil courts.

The changes will mean the Supreme Court will have 31 courtrooms, comprising 16 civil, 11 criminal and four appeal courts.

As part of the remodelling of the old High Court building, the former library will be demolished to clear space for the new courtrooms, a public foyer and a two-level judicial basement car park.

A secure circulation zone and holding facility for defendants in custody will be created.

Each of the floors with criminal courts will hold four courts, jury retirement areas, custody access, interview rooms and sound locks.

The cobblestone lane off Lonsdale Street between the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal will be made into the secure main entry to the Court.

Part of the laneway will be covered by a glazed roof that will also cover the existing courtyard, which will no longer be used as a judicial car park. Instead, the courtyard will become a public foyer that will give access to all courts.

The glazed roof has been modelled on the courtyard of the British Museum in London.

Chief Justice Warren said one of the most important aspects of the refurbishment plans was that they married the heritage values of the building with the modern demands of justice.

The plans came after lengthy consultation between the architects, Supreme Court justices and masters, and Heritage Victoria.

In particular, the Chief Justice said the concept of covering the courtyard and cobblestone lane was “breathtaking”.

She said the redeveloped building, which was first built to house four judges, will have facilities to cater for 34 judges. The judges will have their offices in the same part of the building and will have upgraded facilities in their offices to help them run trials more efficiently.

However, Chief Justice Warren said it was premature to quantify how a redeveloped building would improve efficiency in getting trials on and heard.

“My gut instinct is that it will enable the Court to perform an even higher and streamlined level than it does at the moment.

“There is also another factor. If individuals are working within a modern, high standard facility which creates a good working environment, I think the psychologists say that it inevitably ramps up performance.

“So I would expect that if judges are in a high-quality environment then necessarily that will have an impact on their work and their capacity to do the things the judges do.”

She had no fears that the redevelopment would drain the character from a building whose charm and history elicits as much as love among its users as its resource shortcomings produce frustration.

“From my discussion with the architects there is a very strong commitment to preserving the heritage of this building and this would be a critical component of the government’s decision.”

Law Institute of Victoria CEO John Cain said the plans for the building’s refurbishment were impressive, but that the upgrade was coming off a base of a “grossly inadequate facility at the moment”.

“Everything about running a trial in the current Supreme Court is problematic, ranging from security to acoustics to electronic trials,” Mr Cain said.

“Every aspect of it is hard work in that court building. It is expenditure that is well overdue.”

He said the redevelopment was not only important for the state’s legal profession, but for businesses that need a place to effectively manage disputes.

“It is not just about the legal profession or lawyers having better facilities in which to practise their trade. It has a significant benefit to businesses across the state and that’s why it is such an important project.”

To view the architects’ plans for the Supreme Court, go to http://www.supremecourt.vic.gov.au.

Jason Silverii

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