Justice Minister David Ford's closure of courthouses is premature: MLAs
A decision by the Justice Minister to close four courthouses across Northern Ireland is premature, his Stormont scrutiny committee has said.
Minister David Ford said courthouses in Bangor and Larne would be shut by next April, with facilities in Magherafelt and Limavady to be closed a year later.
The minister added: “The closure of four of the hearing centres and the transfer of that business to larger court centres will deliver some modest savings but will, in general, afford court users, including victims and witnesses, a higher standard of accommodation and facilities.
“These closures mark a first step towards achieving better utilisation across a more consolidated and better equipped court estate.”
A decision on the future of Strabane courthouse will not be taken until a review of the Justice Department's estate has been completed.
Justice committee chairman Paul Givan MLA said: “While the committee notes the reasons put forward by Department of Justice officials for the closing of the courthouses, the committee believes that this decision is premature.
“We believe that the future of each courthouse should be considered as part of the wider justice estate review which will cover over 100 justice-related premises.”
Mr Ford said that he had listened carefully during the consultation and recognised the convenience of having local court facilities.
“However, it remains the case that, in general, the hearing centres are among the smallest and least well-equipped venues within the court estate,” he said.
“I am satisfied that the level of accommodation and facilities available at Strabane are of a higher standard than the other hearing centres and that it should be retained. Strabane's longer term future will be considered as part of a departmental estate strategy.”
The possibility of using property owned by Larne Borough Council for a number of court hearings in Co Antrim is being explored.
The courthouses, or hearing centres, as they are known, are used mostly for Magistrates Courts dealing with criminal business which is prosecuted in the area where the offence was committed, rather than where the defendant lives. They may also hear tribunals, inquests, or be used as ‘overspill’ courts.
Meanwhile, at a meeting of the justice committee at Stormont yesterday, MLAs voiced their opposition to the closures.
Alban Maginness, SDLP MLA for North Belfast, called for the plans to be shelved.
He said: “It seems to me there are no real savings to be made. They are not great, quite minimal. There will be a lot of disruption for ordinary people.”
Mr Givan added: “Collectively, the committee expresses that we believe these decisions to close these hearing centres are premature and should be considered as part of an overall justice estates review.”
Justice Minister David Ford’s decisions over the future of courthouses:
Sent down: Bangor, Larne, Magherafelt and Limavady
In the dock: Some Larne Council offices are being considered for future court business