Justice Minister scraps plan to close six courts
A plan to close six courts in Northern Ireland has been halted.
Justice Minister Claire Sugden has reversed a decision by her predecessor David Ford to shut the buildings at Armagh, Ballymena, Limavady, Lisburn, Magherafelt and Strabane.
Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan was among senior legal figures who expressed serious concern about the potential impact on the administration of justice if the courts stopped hearing cases.
Last year, Mr Ford insisted a decreasing departmental budget had left him with little alternative but to rationalise the courts estate.
He said the proposed closures would deliver £1.1 million in savings a year.
Ms Sugden said she had listened to concerns around the closures and decided to alter course.
One of the reprieved courts - Limavady - is in her East Londonderry Assembly constituency.
Judicial review proceedings were set to go before the High Court challenging the closure decisions in respect of three of the courts.
Ms Sugden told the Assembly she did not believe it would be appropriate to proceed with the closures.
"Recognising the need to rationalise the court estate, however, I must ensure that when moving forward we have sufficient flexibility to deliver better outcomes for the community through reform and innovation," she said.
"I have asked the NI Courts and Tribunals Service, working with the Lord Chief Justice, 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."
The minister has commissioned another review of the courts estate.
She indicated traditional courts could potentially serve other functions, such as mediation or advice centres.
There was a widespread welcome for the move across the Assembly benches.
However Mr Ford and Alliance colleagues expressed regret.
He insisted his original decision was based on solid evidence and asked Ms Sugden: "Could she tell us how she plans to fund the £1.1 million that will now be spent keeping half-empty courthouses in operation, not to mention the ongoing costs for the police service and the prison service, both of which would have seen reductions in expenditure?
"Since it is clearly now her decision she clearly must have a plan to fund it."
Ms Sugden said her decision was less about cutting costs and more about how to serve the people of Northern Ireland.
The Lord Chief Justice's office declined to comment on the move, highlighting that the judicial review proceedings were still formally before the court.
"The judicial review proceedings have not yet been withdrawn and it would therefore not be appropriate for the Lord Chief Justice to comment at this time," said a spokeswoman for the region's top judge.