THE appearance of a violent offender with a six-page rap sheet at the Wonthaggi Magistrates’ Court last Friday has once again focused attention on the antiquated conditions at the historic court house.
However while justice staff, police, lawyers and the general public have long put up with stuffy conditions in summer, blasts of icy cold weather in winter, a lack of space and poor communications technology; this latest problem represents a real threat to the court house’s future.
And it was Gippsland’s Co-ordinating Magistrate, Fiona Hayes, who brought the issue to a head last week.
During the morning court session last Friday, Ms Hayes queried why it was that a drug trafficker, in a contested bail hearing, was brought into court by police in handcuffs.
“Why is he handcuffed in the court? An application should be made for the accused to be handcuffed in court if that’s deemed necessary,” Ms Hayes said, noting it was her preference for them not to be brought into court in handcuffs.
She asked that the shackles be taken off while the hearing proceeded.
However, with another contested bail hearing scheduled for the afternoon session, police were ready.
They made application for a repeat violent offender to be allowed to be brought into the court in handcuffs for safety reasons and Senior Sergeant of Police, Andrew O’Brien, came across from the Wonthaggi Police Station, to support the application.
He was adamant that police safety was being threatened by the conditions at Wonthaggi.
“We don’t have a secure situation here,” Snr Sgt O’Brien said.
“We have to bring them outside the station and across to the court house for their appearance and we have assessed that this poses some safety and security issues,” he said.
“And when we get in here, we don’t have any place to put them, when they come in, which would be my preference.”
“Are you asking me to make a decision on all matters?” Magistrate Hayes said in response, acknowledging the police request had wider implications beyond the present case.
“It could be something we look at in the future,” Snr Sgt O’Brien agreed.
“My concern is for the safety of my members should today’s decision go against him,” he said.
“If it doesn’t go his way there could be an incident.
“He’s a big strong individual with a history of violence.
“I don’t want to have to have a struggle with him. If there was an incident and someone got hurt, there would be questions about what else could have been done,” he said.
“But it’s also for his safety and the safety of the public as well.”
Magistrate Hayes asked the man’s legal representative, Anthony Rosenhain, for his view.
“I don’t have any objection to him being brought into the court in handcuffs but he shouldn’t have to wear them in court. I’ve just spoken to him and he’s quite relaxed and I don’t believe there will be incident.”
But Senior Sergeant O’Brien stressed it was an on-going concern.
“If they were going to build one (a court house) today, there is no way a place like this would be built with this sort of security.”
Magistrate Hayes asked if there’d been a recent change of policy because she didn’t recall it being a problem before.
Snr Sgt O’Brien agreed there had been a change of policy recently, after a review of procedures at the Wonthaggi Police Station, with police members’ safety being one of the key aims.
The violent offender was brought into court in handcuffs, these were removed while the contested bail hearing proceeded and were reattached to the man’s wrists after he lost his appeal and was returned to the cells.
You can expect police management and justice officials to revisit this issue in the near future and it may spark a reassessment of the future of the Wonthaggi Magistrates’ Court.