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Ford defends court closure plans

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Justice Minister David Ford says it is no longer sustainable to operate 20 courthouses

Justice Minister David Ford says it is no longer sustainable to operate 20 courthouses

Justice Minister David Ford says it is no longer sustainable to operate 20 courthouses

The Justice Minister has defended controversial proposals to close eight Northern Ireland courts.

David Ford told MLAs at Stormont it was no longer sustainable to operate 20 courthouses in the current financial climate.

He said: "There is a very significant amount of money to be saved by implementing these reforms and the DoJ (Department of Justice) budget is unsustainable if we don't carry through these reforms."

The Minister is proposing to close facilities in Limavady, Strabane, Enniskillen, Magherafelt, Ballymena, Newtownards, Armagh and Lisburn in a bid to absorb an 11% - £2.3 million - annual funding cut to the NI Courts and Tribunals Service.

During Question Time at the Assembly, he insisted that rationalising the court estate would not lead to a reduction in the number of court sittings but would provide a more efficient service in better conditions for victims, prisoners and witnesses.

Mr Ford also claimed the co-location of judges would offer greater scope to work "collaboratively and more effectively" on cases.

The proposals, which are currently out for public consultation, have already drawn criticism from Northern Ireland's most senior judge Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan.

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TUV leader Jim Allister asked: "Why does the Minister think he knows better than the Lord Chief Justice?"

Concerns were also raised that the most vulnerable could be affected by the transfer of cases from smaller courts to larger, more modern facilities.

However, focus should shift from having a court in every town to having sustainable facilities fit for the 21st century, the Minister said.

"Access to justice does not mean having a court at the bottom of the street," he added. "It means having a courthouse which has suitable facilities for the kind of arrangements we now need including facilities for witnesses, for vulnerable victims, segregation from defendants. All of those issues are more easily provided in the more modern facilities."

Last week it emerged that more than £4.5 million was spent on the eight courts from April 2010, when justice powers were devolved to Stormont, to the end of last year.

DUP MLA David McIlveen alleged that the DoJ had been "fiscally irresponsible" for spending £1.7 million upgrading Ballymena courthouse.

However, Mr Ford batted away the criticism.

He said: "There was a significant amount of money spent a few years ago to comply with disability discrimination act and to ensure that there was a roof which didn't leak. Given the fact that Ballymena (courthouse) is a listed building, the DoJ has obligations to maintain the listed building and that was carried through.

"But, that doesn't mean that we can continue to use old inefficient courthouses which are half empty when there are alternative facilities available in more modern buildings."


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