The Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS) has launched a new estates strategy up to the year 2030 which aims to rectify what it describes as “historically low levels of maintenance spend and investment”.
Published in December 2023, the strategy outlines that, currently, many of the buildings owned by the service are in an end of life status, meaning that significant investment will be required to ensure that the buildings are fit for use, amid challenges such as meeting Northern Ireland’s climate ambitions.
The NICTS estate currently comprises 24 properties across Northern Ireland, with buildings in every county and local government district. The estate has a spatial footprint of 850,000 ft2 and a carbon footprint of 3,000 tonnes of CO2. In comparison with other government estates, NICTS operates an ageing property portfolio, with nearly two thirds of its buildings constructed before 1960.
Historic underinvestment in NICTS buildings has led to what the service describes as “a widely held view” that the facilities in its “ageing and fragmented” estate fall short of the standards expected by users of the justice system in Northern Ireland.
“Those investments that have been made in property and facilities have often been more reactive than strategic in nature,” the NICTS states.
As a result, the NICTS says that many of its buildings lack the “flexibility and accessibility” expected of public buildings and “poorly support the welfare and wellbeing of different user groups”.
“Improvements will be difficult to achieve without investment, and require new design solutions and innovative thinking to overcome practical constraints.”
NICTS has identified four improvement aims and 12 strategic outcomes, that it hopes will result in an “improved and modernised” courts and tribunals estate.
Aim one: Improved user experience
This aims for the NICTS estate to provide quality facilities for the judiciary, its staff, service users, and other justice and legal partners. Improving user experience also means that the estate must become inclusive and accessible for everyone, supporting the needs of victims and vulnerable users, and that it provides the physical infrastructure to support a modern digital environment.
Metrics of success in meeting this objective include ensuring that all buildings are compliant with DDA provisions for mobility and cognitive impairment, all judicial chambers, hearing rooms and consultation rooms are digitally enabled, and that there is an agreed specification and layout for court and tribunal facilities at each court and tribunal tier.
Aim two: Improved resilience
The NICTS aims to ensure that its estate is actively maintained to reduce risks and ensure statutory and regulatory compliance, so that it can provide a safe and secure environment for its staff, the judiciary, and all court users. The service further aims to ensure that its estate provides operational resilience that supports continuity of service and can readily adapt to change.
Ensuring improved resilience means that future building improvements must take account of the need to ensure adaptability in the case of future pandemics, climate change, and capacity changes. The service further states that health and safety audits and fire risk assessments must be regularly undertaken, with any remedial action completed promptly, and that regular cycles of condition surveys must be undertaken, with lifecycle replacements planned in advance.
Aim three: Improved value for money
The NICTS says that its estate must be operated and maintained in a financially sustainable manner in order to ensure that investments facilitate the delivery of services that are proportionate and accessible. The service further outlines its objective of ensuring that, through efficiencies, its estate supports innovation in service delivery, by both enabling, and availing of, co-location opportunities.
To measure the success of this objective, the service states that there is a need to prioritise capital investments that result in reduced revenue expenditure, and that its major capital works projects all include social value clauses that support external job creation.
Efficiencies can be further facilitated if the NICTS establishes relationships with property colleagues across justice and the wider public sector to deliver viable and financially sustainable accommodation solutions. When required, and when it is in the interests of justice, it will be able to facilitate non-criminal business outside of the freehold estate.
Aim four: Increased sustainability
The NICTS aims to ensure that its estate has the “minimum possible impact on the environment” and contributes to the Executive’s targets to achieve net zero. It further specifies objectives of ensuring that it facilitates sustainable ways of working and supports active travel and wellbeing, as well as ensuring that its estate embodies “best practice in the care and protection of our heritage assets”.
To achieve these objectives, the strategy states that, if successful, the NICTS estate will meet the sectoral emissions targets within the Climate Action Plan, all energy and water consumption will be actively and automatically monitored, and that fossil fuels are not used in the estate for space or water heating.