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David Ford to push ahead with closure of courts despite results of consultation

David Ford

David Ford is forging ahead with plans to shut a series of courthouses despite 90% of people opposing the move in a public consultation.

Earlier this month the Justice Minister confirmed six courthouses would be axed.

The closures have been widely criticised, with the Law Society warning it will undermine the justice system.

Now it has emerged that just 10% of those who took part in a consultation supported the closures.

The details were disclosed in response to an Assembly question from TUV leader Jim Allister.

Mr Allister questioned why a consultation was carried out if Mr Ford went ahead and ignored its findings.

"The consultation was a farce and I think his answer proves it was a farce," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

In the reply, Mr Ford confirmed the bulk of responses were "unsupportive".

"There were 97 responses to the consultation, of which 10 either supported or were neutral towards the proposals," he said.

"The remaining 87 were unsupportive to some or all of the proposals.

"A number of responses had a specific regional and venue focus while others offered commentary across a number of regions and venues."

Mr Ford announced the three-month public consultation on the future of eight courthouses in January 2015.

Earlier this month it emerged six would close completely.

Mr Ford hopes to make annual savings of £1m by shutting the Armagh, Ballymena, Lisburn, Magherafelt, Strabane and Limavady buildings.

Enniskillen courthouse will be kept open on a reduced basis, while the minister backed down on plans to axe Newtownards court.

Mr Allister claimed the decision to close most of the courthouses had been taken even before the consultation started.

"The minister made much of this consultation and for months said he would listen carefully to the responses," he said.

"Now we discover that overwhelmingly the consultation was opposed to the closures, and he simply sweeps it aside and carries on - as he always intended to do."

It comes after the Belfast Telegraph reported how officials defied the findings of a separate consultation to introduce a 20mph speed limit in Belfast.

The speed limit was cut on 76 roads across the city centre in January.

After a separate Assembly question it emerged just one-third of people who took part in a consultation by the Department for Regional Development wanted to cut the speed limit.

Only six out of 19 responses received during the three-week exercise in 2014 supported a 20mph zone.

Mr Allister said the two cases indicated that consultations were a waste of time and money.

"They tick a box by saying we have consulted and tried to garner some credibility for a proposal, but in fact the consultation in those two cases discredit the proposal, and yet they carry on.

"There is no point in these consultations by ministers who have their minds made up and are unshakable, no matter how many people oppose the proposals.

"It is farcical and a waste of money.

"These two cases demonstrate what I suspect is a much wider reality.

"I knew perfectly well that the majority of replies were going to be against closing courthouses, and that is why it always made me angry when I heard the minister say he was waiting for the consultation and would give proper regard for it.

"As it turns out, he has no regard for it at all."

The Department of Justice was invited to comment but failed to provide a response last night.

Belfast Telegraph