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Bendigo's $152m law precinct highlights 'disgraceful' state of regional courts, lawyers say

Sale courthouse was built in the 1860s. (ABC Gippsland: Natasha Schapova)

Many of Victoria's regional courts are in a state of disrepair, including a building in the state's east that one lawyer has described as being in a "disgraceful" condition.

John Sullivan's comments about Sale Magistrates' Court follow last week's opening of the $152-million Bendigo Law Courts precinct, which was attended by Premier Daniel Andrews and Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes.

During the tour, Mr Andrews admitted that there was much to be desired about the state of many of Victoria's courts.

"Every old courthouse wants an upgrade," he said.

"We've done some, but you need to strike a balance between investing in the infrastructure that you need and making sure you have enough money left over to run services like hospitals, schools."

Bendigo's law court precinct (left) has just opened. Benalla Magistrates' Court, however, is in need of an upgrade. (ABC Central Victoria: Shannon Schubert/Supplied: Magistrates' of Court Victoria)

But Mr Sullivan says improving the "terrible condition" of Sale's court building is about more than its flaking paint and cracked walls.

"The difficulties with people in custody are pretty well known — they have to be brought from the main street, through the building," he said.

"There have been cases of abuse and worse in the building.

"It's an obvious issue — everyone has to sit in the hallway, waiting for their case to called … they are in proximity to people they are applying for intervention orders against.

"It's really disgraceful, the condition of the court."

Dja Dja Wurrung chief executive Rodney Carter describes the significance of the design and art of the Koori Court during the opening tour. (ABC Central Victoria: Shannon Schubert)

'Significant problems'

Bendigo's upgraded legal complex includes 11 courtrooms, two mediation rooms, and Central Victoria's first Koori Court.

There is also specialist family violence court, which is designed to enable separation between parties in attendance.

That includes safe waiting areas and separate circulation pathways for people in custody, as well as staff.

The Bendigo law courts include a specialist family violence court, where a screen blocks the accused. (ABC Central Victoria: Shannon Schubert)

In line with recommendations from the royal commission into family violence, the state government has spent more than $200m on specialist courts in 13 locations.

ARC Justice chief executive Damian Stock said it was "great to see" separate entrances and remote witness facilities in Bendigo, but similar upgrades were needed elsewhere.

"We have significant problems with perpetrators of violence lining up right beside the victim in other magistrates' courts," he said.

"We hope this gets addressed in the future."

There are cracks on the walls of the Sale courthouse, which hasn't had a fresh coat of paint for decades. (ABC Gippsland: Natasha Schapova)

Judges refuse to use court

Mr Sullivan said the Sale courtroom was so unfit for purpose that people were being forced to travel to the Latrobe Valley for criminal hearings.

"It's so bad, the judges of the County Court refused to come here to conduct County Court sittings any longer," he said.

"I've had cases where people have had to try and arrange motel accommodation for them, because there's no potential to travel to and from [court] every day.

"They're disadvantaged significantly.

"Why should people who choose to live in the country or rural area be treated differently than people who live in the city?"

"The Sale court is a long way below any reasonable standard."

A state government spokesperson told the ABC it had spent $600m on court infrastructure since 2014, which included upgrades at Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo, Shepparton and Latrobe Valley.

"We're continuing to work towards making all courts fit for purpose, safe and accessible," they said.

The 179-year-old Portland Magistrates Court was renovated in 2020. (Supplied: Magistrates' Court of Victoria)

More resources needed 

Law Institute of Victoria president Tania Wolff said it was not just new infrastructure that was needed in regional areas.

"Many of the regions are experiencing shortages of magistrates and also the key resources to provide the court services."

"They need sustainable multi-year funding, to be able to provide those support services to regional Victoria as well."

Colac Magistrates' Court, in the state's south-west. (Supplied: Magistrates' Court of Victoria)

She said there isn't the same access to much needed court services, with backlogs and delays worse in regional areas.  

"All of these issues, it results in delays, it results in efficiencies. It sometimes results in people feeling that they cant exercise their legal rights, because it'll take so long to have that resolution."

"That could potentially increase legal costs that limit access to justice, it can affect the most vulnerable. It also impacts people's confidence in the law."

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