Closure threat lifted from six courts in Northern Ireland after Stormont U-turn
Justice Minister Claire Sugden has dramatically reversed her predecessor David Ford's decision to close six local courts across Northern Ireland.
The U-turn came after plans to shut down local courthouses in Armagh, Ballymena, Lisburn, Limavady, Magherafelt and Strabane had themselves produced a number of legal challenges.
But the reprieve announced in the Assembly yesterday will mean her department having to make savings elsewhere.
Mr Ford's verdict followed a report in November last year by the Courts and Tribunals Service (CTS) which argued diminishing resources meant continuing to operate all current 20 courthouses was "no longer sustainable".
"In addition to the financial challenges, business volumes have been falling and many of the court buildings are underutilised," it concluded.
There was no response from Mr Ford yesterday but his party colleague Trevor Lunn asked why Ms Sugden had not identified where the money for keeping the courts open will come from.
The Lagan Valley MLA said Mr Ford had undertaken a substantial consultation exercise, including a number of public events and a series of meetings with council delegations and other elected representatives before deciding to close the half-dozen local courts.
"We now have the current Justice Minister halting these closures and announcing a review of what the future of the courts estate should look like in 2020 and beyond," he said.
"Is this a review of a previous review?" he asked.
But Ms Sugden said "having considered representations from the community" and new plans for court provision, "I do not consider it would be appropriate to proceed with the proposed closures at this time."
But she said she had asked the CTS to "consider the requirements of the court estate in the context of a changing justice environment, mindful that facilities must meet the needs of those using our courts and in particular the needs of victims and witnesses."
She said her department will continue to monitor the use of the court estate but any future rationalisation decisions will be subject to a fresh consultation.
In the Assembly the SDLP's Alex Attwood asked why, at Question Time on Monday, the Justice Minister said she could not discuss the court estate pending the outcome of ongoing judicial reviews.
She said: "I think it's perfectly reasonable that I would want to consider the views of the people in this house and then come to a decision like this."
Her move was praised elsewhere, with two separate statements from the DUP.
Congratulating the minister, Justice Committee chairperson Paul Frew said: "The public would expect no less as these are a vital service within many of our towns.
"I am absolutely delighted that towns like Ballymena will continue to have a local courthouse.
"It was an access to justice issue and I'm glad that the threat of closure and job losses has now been lifted."
And deputy chair Pam Cameron also welcomed in particular plans to build on a pilot scheme for a special domestic violence court.
"Domestic violence has been an issue which is of extreme importance to me and I believe it is important that local people have ease of access to the justice system to bring those responsible before the courts," she added.
TUV leader Jim Allister, however, said: "The question which now needs to be answered is how the department got itself in such a mess.
"It seems evident to me that the Justice Minister knew that she faced being forced into a climb down as a result of the upcoming judicial review had she not quickly found reverse gear."
Law Society president John Guerin had warned closures would undermine the justice system, causing greater disruption, inconvenience and unnecessary stress to court users.