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From boutique fashion house to revitalised engine room of justice: Sydney’s Downing Centre court complex debuted a fresh new look this week. It comes with new courtrooms, a dedicated space for the Drug Court and a long-awaited bathroom makeover.

NSW Attorney General Mark Speakman joined the Senior Judge of the Drug Court, Roger Dive, and NSW Chief Magistrate Judge Graeme Henson to tour the new facilities and formally unveil the court’s $10.6 million renovation on 19 May.

Law Society of NSW President Juliana Warner also joined guests for the opening, which took place inside a new courtroom that will be used by the Drug Court on its weekly sitting day, as well as a District Court on other days.

Speakman told the crowd the renovation would “[add] a new lustre to this jewel in our architectural heritage … the grand old dame of Sydney’s architecture” and described the improvements as “the best in heritage and innovation coming together”.

“The Local Court deals with 96 per cent of all criminal matters from start to finish. The new courtrooms increase its hearing capacity, helping … to manage its significant workload,” he told guests.

Before it became a court complex in the early 1990s, the Downing Centre enjoyed a rich history as the Mark Foys Department Store. A pristine style destination, it often hosted elaborate shows, fashion balls and even an ice rink (on level five) in the 1950s.

Prior to COVID-19 associated lockdowns and a pivot to online hearings, the Downing Centre welcomed between 1000 and 1400 court users a day. It remains the largest court complex in the Southern Hemisphere.

A critical part of the refurbishment is the designated space for the Drug Court and meeting rooms for the wraparound legal and support services that collaborate in the program, including Legal Aid, NSW Police, NSW Health, Community Corrections and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

“I am hoping this will now be part of the catalyst to expand the sittings and the drawing areas for the Sydney Drug Court”

Roger Dive, Senior Judge NSW Drug Court

The bar table in the courtroom has rounded corners so it can be used as a space for participants and court officials to truly come together during sessions.

Judge Dive told LSJ “it’s fantastic to have a purpose-built courtroom”, as previously the court had been relying on “the grace” of sharing Local Court facilities. He now hopes it will be “a catalyst” to expand the successful program. A 2020 evaluation by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research revealed those who participated had a 17 per cent lower reoffending rate compared with non-participants.

“I think the design and layout is so much better for us … it’s quite deliberate. We like to have a strong ability for the participants to come and talk to the team and talk to the Judge. It’s a big part of the Drug Court program,” Judge Dive said.

“[Now] we have a footprint of our own [in the building] but I always want more. I am hoping this will now be part of the catalyst to expand the sittings and the drawing areas for the Sydney Drug Court.

“It is terrific that we are here for one day a week but there are so many communities out there, not just in the city but in the regions who all want a Drug Court because they all want to do something different than just seeing people go to jail.”

Another important part of the refurbishment is a new safe room for victims of crime and complainants in sexual assault and domestic violence cases.

“Victims of crimes such as domestic violence and sexual assault show great courage in coming forward and it’s pleasing there are now more private and secure areas for them to prepare for court and give evidence,” Speakman said.

And for court users who battled what Speakman described as “rage against the latrine” – braving the rundown three-decades-old bathrooms, a complete gutting and refurbishment of the facilities is sure to delight.