Top Northern Ireland judge warns over court closures
A reprieve for two of eight courthouses listed for closure in Northern Ireland has failed to allay the concerns of the region's top judge.
Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan has reiterated his warning about the potential impact on the administration of justice after Stormont officials confirmed the closures of courts in Enniskillen and Newtownards would not proceed at this time.
Earlier this year Sir Declan said he was concerned the original proposal for eight closures would hit the most vulnerable in society.
Proposals to shut the courts in Armagh, Ballymena, Limavady, Lisburn, Magherafelt and Strabane are still set to proceed.
The decision to keep Enniskillen and Newtownards open follows a lengthy public consultation exercise by the Department of Justice.
The final decision on all the courts is due to be made by Justice Minister David Ford in January, but he is unlikely to contradict his department's new revised proposals.
Responding to the latest plan, a spokeswoman from the Office of the Lord Chief Justice said: "The Lord Chief Justice made his views known when he met with the Justice Committee in March 2015 and in the written response submitted on behalf of his office to the consultation exercise.
"It remains a matter of real regret to him that the closure of courthouses has effectively been imposed as a result of the current budgetary situation.
"He has asked that the potential impact for court users is fully considered if closures are being implemented and actions taken to minimise any adverse impact there may be, particularly on those who are the most vulnerable in society."
While Enniskillen courthouse is not closing it will now only open on days when there are court hearings listed.
Business will continue as usual at Newtownards, but a large question mark remains over its future.
Its closure has only been stopped as the DoJ does not currently have the funding to go ahead with developing a new family court facility in the Old Townhall in Belfast.
Senior Courts Service official Ronnie Armour outlined the revised proposals to members of Stormont's Justice committee on Thursday afternoon.
"I am in no doubt that these recommendations will cause concern for committee members, for court users and for the wider public," he said.
"Implementing them will be challenging and the impact of closures of this scale will be far-reaching."
Mr Armour said cuts to DoJ funding had left the department with little alternative but to rationalise the courts estate. He said the proposed closures would deliver £1.1 million in savings a year.
He added: "The proposals are extensive and regrettable but unfortunately in the current financial climate we believe they are necessary."
DUP MLA Arlene Foster welcomed the confirmation that Enniskillen courthouse is to be retained.
Mrs Foster said: "This confirmation today is very welcome news for Enniskillen. As the County town of Fermanagh, Enniskillen, is the hub for a very wide rural area and in terms of access to justice the maintenance of Enniskillen courthouse is vital.
"The retention of public buildings such as this obviously continues to bring people into Enniskillen and therefore it has a positive knock-on benefit for the business community in the town.
"I am committed to ensuring that we bring jobs and investment to Enniskilen and to Fermanagh as a whole. However it is also important that we protect the jobs and services that we already have in the town. Today’s announcement is a welcome part of that."
Meanwhile the Ulster Unionist Party’s Newry & Armagh MLA Danny Kennedy has said that the announcement that Armagh Court House should close confirmed his worst fears.
Mr Kennedy said: "I said earlier this week that I had received information which suggested that the Department of Justice was preparing to announce the closure of Armagh Court House and at today’s Justice Committee, this information was proven to be accurate and confirmed my worst fears.
"I remain firmly of the opinion that this is a retrograde step, given the strategic importance of the building in Armagh City, the important service it provides to the region and the aesthetic value of the building itself.
"We are talking about a landmark building which provides a much needed public service. It has also been a physical symbol of law enforcement and the subject of several terrorist attacks down the years and which has relatively recently had a large amount spent on it as a part of a refurbishment and renovation programme.
"I will be demanding a meeting with the Minister to urge him to reconsider this decision which I believe is as unwise as it is unwelcome."