Visiting the courts
Visitors are welcome at the Christchurch Court House, which is on Durham Street housing 14 courtrooms, in the block between Chester Street and Armagh Street.
Obviously, going to the courts is a chance to see the criminal justice system going about its business.
And the courts are full of interest, not just for the way they give a snapshot of city life, but people attending are sometimes present to see moments of high drama.
When a jury returns with a verdict in a dramatic trial, the courtroom feels tense, as though the oxygen has suddenly gone.
The courts have their own security officers and people entering are subject to airport-style searches with metal detectors and x-ray machinery on some days.
If you are going along to see a particular case for that day, see the Friends at Court at their desk in the foyer between District Courts 1 and 2 on the ground floor. They will consult their list and tell you which court to go to, and give you a rough idea of the time.
There are some simple rules for people visiting courtrooms:
- You may not wear your hat, hood or sunglasses inside the building.
- If you are going into a courtroom, turn your cellphone off.
- Members of the public are not allowed to take notes in courtrooms.
- You may come and go from the public seating during the hearing, but do so quietly. Don’t disrupt the proceedings in any way.
- Be sure to stand up when the judge enters or leaves the court.
- Should the judge speak to you for any reason, stand and address him or her as “Your Honour”.
How it works
District Court 1 on the ground floor is where all the criminal cases are first called and begin the process of being dealt with. They may be remanded for legal advice or sent off for a status hearing or pre-depositions conference.
Eventually they will find their way to a hearing, either as a fixture before a judge alone, or in front of a judge and jury.
Other courts are used to hear traffic prosecutions, miscellaneous prosecutions, and administrative sessions where details of upcoming hearings are worked out and dates are set.
The Christchurch Court House has two jury trial District Courtrooms on level 2. They are courts 5 and 6.
Trials can last anything from part of a day to eight weeks depending on the complexity, the number of witnesses, or the number of accused.
Each jury trial begins with the selection of the jury. This is done by ballot after jury panel members have been contacted by post and asked to attend at the Court House on a particular date.
The courts’ public seating is usually packed with the jury panel during this selection process and it would be best if spectators waited outside the court until the 12 members of the jury were selected and the foreperson has been chosen.
At that stage, the rest of the panel is released until it is needed for the start of the next trial, and seating in the courtroom becomes available.
The first part of a trial is the opening address to the jury by the crown prosecutor. This is sometimes followed by a short defence statement, and then the crown witnesses are called. Once the crown case has been presented, the defence has the chance to call its own evidence if it wishes. A trial ends with closing addresses by the crown and defence counsel, and the trial judge then sums up.
At that stage the jury retires to the jury room to consider its verdict. The members of the jury will be kept together in that room until they have reached their decisions. If their deliberations continue overnight, they will be accommodated at a nearby hotel and return to the jury room next morning.
The jury’s work can take a long time in a complicated trial where there may be a large number of charges requiring individual decisions.
Sometimes during its deliberations a jury will return to the court to ask a question of the judge.
There is no clue when a jury will return with its verdict. It’s just a matter of waiting for its knock on the door.
The High Court at Christchurch has four courtrooms, but most criminal matters are dealt with in High Courts 1 and 2 on level 5 of the same building. Both of these courtrooms are equipped to conduct jury trials.
High Court 1 has ornate woodwork which was salvaged and restored after Christchurch’s 19th Century Supreme Court building was demolished. It was an impressive gothic stone building that stood nearby on the banks of the Avon.
The Family Court sits in a building next door which was formerly Christchurch’s Magistrate’s Court.
The Environment Court holds sittings in the old Durham Street Art Gallery building on the corner of Durham and Armagh Streets. This building was Christchurch’s Supreme Court building for several years while the tower block was being built.
The Coroner’s Court regularly takes over District Courtrooms for the hearing of inquests into deaths.
Christchurch District and High Court
Address: 282 Durham St, Christchurch
Postal: P O Box 4618, DX WP20040
Telephone: 03 962 4000
Fax: 03 962 4233
High Court Fax: 03 962 4302
There are 133 District Court Judges, including the Chief District Court Judge. Judges are permanently based in the main centres, but travel to other courts on circuit. While each District Court Judge can preside over minor criminal matters, they each specialise in particular aspects of the District Court’s jurisdiction, either jury trials, family or youth.