The Millicent Magistrates Court is scheduled to sit on just five more occasions this year owing to an unexplained cutback by the Courts Administration Authority.
The decades-long tradition of monthly sittings has been shelved with the magistrate set to preside at the George Street courthouse on April 22, June 16, August 25, October 21 and December 16.
There have been typically around 40 criminal matters heard each month at Millicent as well as civil and youth court listings. The administration of justice at Millicent has already been disrupted for almost a year as the local courthouse was closed due to COVID-19 protocols.
Applicable social distancing measures could not be achieved in the cramped courtroom which is occupied by the magistrate, court and security staff, prosecution and defence counsel and the defendants. The halt on local hearings began when April’s sitting was transferred to Mount Gambier and Millicent’s sittings did not resume until last week.
Magistrate Maria Panagiotidis presided over 45 matters. The decision to cut Millicent court sittings to every two months follows a steady decline in State Government services and employee numbers in the town.
State governments of both political colours have shut offices in Millicent over the past 25 years including the TAB, MacKillop electorate office, regional tourism office, ETSA and the former E&WS (now SA Water). The latest cutback has drawn a sharp response.
Retired Millicent lawyer Robin Watts spent time in the local courthouse during his 50-year career in the law. “One might reasonably ask whether or not public servants think the courts are there for their benefit rather than the convenience of the litigants that appear before them,” Mr Watts said.
The reduction in court days will undoubtedly affect the turnover of Acky’s Deli which is located two doors north of the courthouse. Proprietor Mark Pilmore said many of those involved in the court proceedings were visitors to Millicent and they regularly purchased food and beverages from his business.
“We get them all in here and court day is one of our busiest days each month,” Mr Pilmore said. “You have to wonder if they will have Millicent court days only on a quarterly basis in 2022 and then do away with them altogether thereafter.”
Wattle Range Mayor Des Noll has expressed his disappointment at the cut-backs on two grounds. “Any reduction in State Government services will have an impact on local businesses,” Mr Noll said. “The administration of justice should be delivered close to home.”
Millicent legal firm Hume, Taylor & Co partner Sam Partridge said his clients came from the areas south of Kingston and chiefly Millicent, Robe and Beachport. “We will be able to manage the affairs of our clients to the same standard despite the less regular court sittings (in Millicent), although I expect that urgent matters will be heard in other courts in Mount Gambier or Adelaide and less urgent matters may be dealt with by the courts less promptly,” Mr Partridge said.
“We have managed COVID-19 through video and telephone court hearings quite effectively, which is still the case in many courts, particularly the federal courts. “Ultimately funding of the court system is a State Government budgetary matter and the Law Society of SA does lobby on appropriate matters, but the primary remedy available is to lobby local state parliamentary members.”
A Courts Administration Authority spokesperson said certain COVID-19 protocols now applied at the Millicent Courthouse including a limit of six people in the public gallery and six in the waiting area. The State Government agency has been directly asked by this newspaper to explain the rationale behind the reduction in Millicent court frequency and The SE Voice is awaiting a reply.
It has also been asked about the planned frequency of court hearings at Naracoorte and Bordertown. All three courthouses are located in the MacKillop electorate and local MP Nick McBride has been approached for comment.
Millicent’s first courthouse was erected in 1878 and it was demolished 85 years later to make way for the current structure. Among the sensational trials to occur within its walls was the Court of Disputed Returns which convened following irregularities in the 1993 biennial election for Millicent District Council.