Taxpayers could be lumbered with funding the cost of maintenance of Armagh Courthouse on a permanent basis if it is decided that it should close.
Based on the figures provided in the review which recommends closing Armagh and retaining Craigavon and Newry, it could cost in the region of £60 a day to keep – indefinitely!
And that’s only if the figures given by the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Services are to be accepted as fact.
But Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council does not believe the £21,000 a year maintenance estimate given even comes close to the mark.
The Courts and Tribunals Service has said the maintenance would continue until such times as the Courthouse would be sold.
Yet the council says it is highly unlikely that the building would ever be sold and brought back into productive use and the recurring maintenance costs would continue, essentially year after year after year.
The public consultation on the future of the courts estate comes to an end next Monday, May 18.
In the second Armagh I report on the consultation response by council, the financial element of the proposals comes under the spotlight.
Armagh City and District Council had employed consultants to draw up the case for retaining the Courthouse.
The response, now approved by the new council, states: “As the owner of the listed building the Courts and Tribunals Service would be required to maintain it in a safe and secure condition and to ensure that the fabric of the building does not deteriorate.
“The Service has stated that it has allocated £21,000 per annum for this purpose, but the experience of the council suggests this figure is woefully inadequate.
“The council has several historic buildings in its ownership and its experience is that the cost of maintaining an historic building of the scale of the Courthouse is likely to be many times this figure in many years.”
The consultants also argue that the closure of the Courthouse in Armagh would “reduce access to justice with immediate effect”.
It says it would no longer be an asset to the justice system and the recent expenditure on upgrading the Courthouse will become nugatory.
The report adds: “It is unlikely that the Courthouse can be sold because of its very specific nature and its special location.
“There will, therefore, probably be no realisation of the capital value of the Courthouse and the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service will be required to maintain the closed Courthouse indefinitely, at a cost which the council believes will be very much greater than the figure of £21,000 per annum which has been quoted for the maintenance of the closed Courthouse.
“A closed Courthouse, even if well maintained, will be a less effective urban and tourism asset than an operational Courthouse.”
The council also says the issue of wider costs has been ignored and that the consultation document fails to take these into account.
It says these include the additional costs to modify Newry and Craigavon Courthouses to bring them up to the required standard to handle the transferred Armagh caseload in a satisfactory way.
There is also the additional costs and time to Legal Aid because Armagh based solicitors will incur extra costs travelling to and from Newry or Craigavon Courthouses.
The Portadown, Lurgan and Craigavon Solicitors’ Association has estimated the additional cost as between £42 and £43 per solicitor per day.
And they estimate that, with 20 to 25 practitioners attending court on a busy day, the daily cost could exceed £1000 and the annual cost could reach £260,000.
The consultants say this figure alone exceeds the projected saving from the closure of Armagh Courthouse of £217,000
The consultation response also there there is the exta costs and time to the PSNI arising from officers travelling from Armagh to Newry Courthouse.
And more travelling time will mean that fewer police officers will be available in Armagh.
Then there are the additional costs and time for others attending the court, such as social workers, probation officers and youth justice workers.
The response also refers to the additional costs of motoring or public transport fares and time to the public in attending Newry or Craigavon Courthouses, with round-trips respectively of 28 and 36 miles from Armagh.
The council argues that removing the Courthouse removes a significant asset to the Northern Ireland justice system, and it is difficult to see an approved alternative use for the Courthouse so there will be likely to be no capital asset realisation
It says some costs are capable of being quantified, but they are likely to be very much smaller than the long term economic cost of diminishing Armagh’s unique townscape as a cultural and tourism asset.
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