Courthouse closures

After Justice Minister David Ford MLA confirmed the closure of five courthouses across Northern Ireland, agendaNi looks at what it might mean for the justice system in Northern Ireland.

Justice Minister, David Ford MLA has confirmed that a further five courthouses in Northern Ireland will close due to unprecedented financial pressures, the underuse of courthouses and falling staffing levels.

Having previously announced the closure of Limavady Courthouse, the Minister recently confirmed that the following courthouses will also close:

•   Armagh Courthouse with all business to be transferred to Newry;

•   Ballymena Courthouse with some modest adjustment of the court calendar allowing for business to be transferred to Antrim Courthouse;

•   Lisburn Courthouse with all business to be transferred to Laganside Court;

•   Magherafelt Courthouse with all business to be transferred to Dungannon Courthouse;

•   Strabane Courthouse with all business to be transferred to Omagh Courthouse.

The announcement follows recommendations issued by the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunal Service last year in which stated that eight courthouses in Northern Ireland should have closed in order to comply with the Executive’s programme for public sector reform and restructuring.

The Minister states that in the context of significant reductions in funding it has been necessary to reduce budget allocations to all spending areas, including the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunal Service. He also says that operating 20 courthouses in a place the size of Northern Ireland is no longer practical and that the closures will ensure the organisation is structured and resourced to provide an efficient and effective service.

The Minister also indicated that the change will mean court business will be centred around more modern court buildings which offer better facilities, particularly for victims and witnesses. 

However, speaking following the announcement, the President of the Law Society for Northern Ireland, John Guerin stated that the closures will cause havoc for court users and those seeking access to justice.

“The reality is that a reduced court infrastructure will mean an increased volume of cases being spread across a more limited range of court venues resulting in the potential for overcrowding and delays of business,” said Guerin. “Instead of serving to improve the efficiency of the justice system and protect access to justice, it will undermine the effectiveness of the system and leave those that need it most without access to their local court. 

“This will be mostly evident in rural communities where access to public transport services is limited, incomes are lower and levels of unemployment and social deprivation levels are much higher.

“The ‘real’ impact on court users who do not have their own transport, who are on low incomes, who will be forced to move to a different courthouse away from their support network and travel expenses cannot be measured in efficiency or monetary savings. It does not serve the interest of justice to leave communities without access to local courthouses or to endanger the future of businesses in local town centres.” 

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