Court closures 'to save £400,000'
Closing five courthouses in Northern Ireland will save the authorities £400,000 a year in operating costs, it has been claimed.
Although justice minister David Ford has yet to make a decision, solicitors fear the centres in Magherafelt and Limavady, Co Derry, Strabane, Co Tyrone, Larne, Co Antrim, and Bangor, Co Down, will fall silent.
Public meetings have been planned for the coming weeks as part of a consultative process, but with the minister determined to make further savings in the justice system, the pressure is on his department to cut the number of courthouses to 18.
Senior officials at the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunal Service believe transferring the business to alternative venues will save more than £400,000 a year in operating costs. If not, then it will take an estimated £3 million to carry out major refurbishment work.
Closures are not expected to have an impact on existing staff, although ancillary jobs such as security and cleaning, which are provided by external contractors, are likely to go.
Mr Ford said: "Many routine services which were previously only available at local court offices can now be transacted online or by telephone. At a time of severe financial stringency, I believe it is necessary to direct our resources where they will deliver the greatest benefit."
Solicitors opposed to the closures are expected to challenge the minister's proposals at public meetings which begin in Larne on January 20. They claim clients will face serious inconvenience, including longer journeys.
Darren Duncan, a north Down solicitor heavily involved in the campaign to prevent Bangor being axed, claimed courthouses in neighbouring Newtownards and Downpatrick are inadequate to deal with the extra work.
He said: "At present, the Department of Justice is simply kicking the can further down the road without dealing directly with the problems. They should look at the situation with a long-term view and invest in new modern facilities which could provide value for money and access to justice.
"'Access to justice' is a key buzz phrase at present within the legal services system, but I fail to see how the proposed closure of a number of courts throughout Northern Ireland will assist the department in achieving it. Without the provision of new modern court buildings and investment, it is difficult to see how the current proposals will achieve value for money in the long term."