Security at the Ballarat Courthouse will be ramped up with tougher security measures set to be introduced next year.
New walk-through metal detectors and more security staff will form part of much-needed upgrades to the 16-year-old Grenville Street building.
Issues of safety have come under intense scrutiny over the years with the number of recorded security incidents continuing to rack up.
The security concerns were one of a number of issues discussed with Attorney General Martin Pakula during a visit to the city earlier this week.
Local lawyers and corrections officers took full advantage of the visit to express concerns they had with facilities and current procedures at the Ballarat Courthouse.
Attorney General Martin Pakula said the meeting was a good chance to discuss a range of key issues in the region with the local legal profession.
“We talked about the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and I reiterated the Government’s commitment to introduce a redress scheme for survivors,” Mr Pakula said.
“We also discussed court times, Supreme Court and County Court circuits, and the security upgrades we are delivering to the Ballarat courthouse.
“These upgrades will include a new walk-through metal detector, new screening wands, and five new dedicated court security officers in 2017.”
The upgrades to the Ballarat Courthouse are part of a $58.1 million Victorian Budget 2016-17 funding boost over four years to implement a state-wide court safety and security model.
But while the new security measures have been applauded by many, local lawyer Dianne Hadden who has been campaigning for better security for the past 10 years said they’re still not good enough.
“Ballarat is being treated differently to Geelong who have had full security implemented for 10 years which includes an X-ray machine… why should Ballarat be grateful for the crumbs,” she said.
“There have been major incidents and they continue to be a threat … as a result of poor lack of security and design of the court.”
But criminal lawyer Scott Belcher disagrees, telling The Courier he believes security as the courthouse has been adequate for the past two years.
“The two men on the front door do a great job, they screen everyone with a metal detecting wand each time they enter, search bags and other unnecessary paraphernalia people bring to court when they enter,” he said.
“Geelong is very different to Ballarat in population, demographic and perceived security risk. It’s not a case of any state government handing out preferential treatment to one regional city over the other. Any perception that the Ballarat Courthouse is unsafe is incorrect.
“You will never stop every security risk, but Ballarat Courthouse is very well run by staff.”
During his visit, Mr Pakula also addressed questions about the introduction of video links and reforms to community-based orders.
“As part of the Victorian Budget 2015-16, we invested $14.7 million for a major expansion to the Magistrates’ Court video conferencing network across metropolitan and regional courts,” he said.
“The new technology will be up and running at Ballarat Magistrates' Court early next year, with installation work starting in December.
“The practical implementation of the technology is a matter for the courts.
“(And) as previously announced, we are working to reform the use of CCOs and we will be introducing legislation into Parliament shortly."
Mr Belcher said the meeting opportunity played a major role in bridging disconnections between metropolitian Melbourne and regional courts.
"We always welcome any opportunity to bring decision makers in Melbourne and country Victoria closer together for discussion and debate,” he said.
"We had a wide-ranging question and answer forum on possible changes to the current law, improvement to court house facilities and feedback to the Attorney General about practice and procedure in all levels of open court.
“In the past there have been perceptions of disconnect between metropolitan Melbourne and country Victoria, this achieved wonderful things in bridging that disconnect.”
Earlier this week the Andrews Labor Government also released the Access to Justice Review with 60 recommendations focusing on reducing the barriers facing disadvantaged Victorians.
The review highlighted weaknesses in the current system, including poor technology and under resourcing of legal assistance.
“While the system is not broken, it is under considerable strain,” the report read.
“The gap between community needs and system capacity will continue to widen if action is not taken now.”
The review was commissioned after concerns were raised the justice system was too slow, expensive and adversarial.
More than 90 submissions by key stakeholders were reviewed with a number of recommendations, including strengthening Victoria Legal Aid’s role and providing more support to unrepresented Victorians.
Government is currently considering the review before responding to the recommendations.
“The review makes wide-ranging recommendations across our courts, legal bodies and organisations, and support services – and we’ll now carefully work through those stakeholders before moving forward,” Mr Pakula said.
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