Justice Minister David Ford has confirmed the closure of Armagh Courthouse.
In a statement to the Assembly tonight (Monday), the Minister said he was accepting the findings of the Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice.
And the programme of closures will begin in the summer.
Mr Ford said: “In reaching my decisions I have sought to take account of the concerns that were raised. While it is simply not feasible to maintain the status quo in regard to court accommodation, I have sought to limit the overall impact and to consolidate our estate into the larger or more modern buildings.
“Consequently I have concluded that, in addition to the closure of Limavady Courthouse, which was announced in 2012, the following court venues should be closed: Armagh; Ballymena; Lisburn; Magherafelt and Strabane.”
Enniskillen Court, meanwhile, will be retained and used as a Hearing Centre, remaining open on those days when a court is sitting, generally two or three days each week. On the days when there is no court sitting, the office will be closed.
Mr Ford continued: “The consultation paper outlined a proposal that would have involved the closure of Lisburn and Newtownards Courthouses and the creation a Family Justice Centre in the Old Townhall Building.
“While creating a Family Justice Centre remains an aspiration, the funding that would be required to make this happen is simply not available at this time.
“Consequently the building will remain closed on a temporary basis and its future use will be considered in the context of the wider DOJ Estate Strategy.”
In relation to Armagh Courthouse, the business will be relocated between Craigavon and Newry.
Mr Ford said: “The closure of these six courthouses, along with the continued temporary closure of the Old Townhall Building and the proposed changes at Enniskillen, will result in much-needed recurrent savings of over £1.1m per annum.
“When taken with other accommodation reductions planned or recently implemented by NICTS, the rationalisation programme will deliver recurrent savings of over £2.0m per annum.”
In Lisburn, business will transfer to Laganside, something viewed as “achievable”.
Outraged at confirmation of the closure of Armagh Courthouse by Minister of Justice- dreadful decision
— Danny Kennedy (@DKennedy_UUP) February 8, 2016
The Minister said: “A rationalised court estate must be one which can be maintained and, where possible, improves the facilities and services for court users by focusing available funding on a reduced number of venues.
“It must also be affordable in the long term. It is with these objectives in mind that the consultation was launched, and that I have made the decisions I am announcing today.”
The consultation process began 12 months ago and involved seven public events and a series of meetings with council delegations and other elected representatives.
Ninety-seven written responses were received by NICTS, many of them expressing concern at the possibility of closing of a local courthouse.
Said the Minister: “I have taken extensive time to consider my decisions. In doing so, I have sought to balance the concerns expressed by local stakeholders against the facts, including the unprecedented financial pressures facing my Department; the clear evidence that many of our courts are underutilised because we have too many of them and business volumes are falling; and the pressures within our Courts and Tribunals Service as a result of falling staffing levels in the context of wider public sector reform.
“In common with other public sector organisations, the Department of Justice has seen very significant budget reductions in recent years. These reductions have had, and will continue to have, a significant adverse impact upon the entire justice system, including the Courts and Tribunals Service.
“I have previously indicated that in allocating resource budgets my priorities are to: Protect, as far as possible, frontline policing; Ensure the PSNI has adequate security funding; and protect other frontline areas across the Department as far as possible, with the aim of protecting outcomes for the public.
“Consistent with these priorities, my Department has delivered a proportionately higher level of financial savings than the front-line justice agencies for which it has responsibility. Notwithstanding the steps I have taken to protect the frontline, the amount of money that is available to our Courts and Tribunals Service has significantly reduced.
“Since 1 April 2014, the NICTS funding allocation has reduced by £4.5m, or 10.8%. In addition, its income from court fees has reduced by £2.9m, due to falling business volumes.
“As a result of the Department of Justice’s budget allocation, the NICTS budget will be reduced again significantly in the incoming financial year. NICTS has made significant efforts to deliver savings to minimise the impact on service delivery.
“Over the past two years NICTS has reduced the number of staff posts by 77 or 10.5%; relocated the Coroners Service, the Enforcement of Judgements Office, the Tribunal Hearing Centre and the Office of the Parole Commissioners from leased premises to other existing accommodation; reduced the size of its senior management team; streamlined its corporate service function; and reduced the costs associated with contracted services.
“However, these measures alone will not be sufficient to allow the Service to operate within budget in future years.
“Given that operating and maintaining the court estate alone accounts for £9m per year, it is no longer feasible to continue to manage the estate in its current form.
“In the context of the financial pressures facing the public sector, and in line with the Executive’s commitment to public sector restructuring and reform, NICTS launched a three year Modernisation Programme, the objective of which is to ‘deliver an Agency which is structured and resourced to provide efficient and effective service delivery to users; and to have a workforce that is equipped to work in a new and increasingly challenging environment’,
“One element of that Programme is focused on the rationalisation of the court estate. The objective is to ensure that NICTS serves the community in buildings that are capable of hearing the full range of court business, while at the same time allowing the Agency to focus diminishing resources on a smaller number of venues.
“The decision to consult on the rationalisation of the court estate was not taken lightly, and the process has not been rushed.
“I have thought long and hard about what is needed in the context of business need, service delivery and affordability. Even if NICTS were not facing the financial constraints I have described it has to be acknowledged that we simply no longer need the number of courthouses currently in operation in Northern Ireland.
“In his recent report on the adequacy of the court estate, the Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice has highlighted the inefficiencies within the Courts and Tribunal Service, noting that court business volumes are falling and that many court buildings are underutilised. Utilisation rates are measured on the basis of actual sittings against maximum sittings available within a venue.”
The utilisation rate in Armagh in 2014/15 was given as 29.6% and in other areas as follows: Ballymena 38.8%; Enniskillen 42.8%; Limavady 23.3%; Lisburn 59.8%; Magherafelt 20.7%; Newtownards 62.6% and Strabane 29.7%.
The Minister continued: “The Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice summarised the position when he commented that ‘The cost of maintaining a significantly underused court estate has hastened the closure of some courthouses and more must follow, particularly those where the facilities do not reach the current standards’.
“The reality is that Northern Ireland does not need the number of courthouses we currently have and we can no longer afford to retain them and to operate them.
“I have carefully considered the views that were expressed during the consultation, both in the formal responses received and at the public meetings.”
The Minister said he was satisfied that, in the current financial climate, and in the context of falling business volumes and the extensive underutilisation of the current court estate, it is “appropriate to proceed with the six closures”.
He confirmed: “I have therefore asked NICTS to develop an implementation plan to allow the commencement of a programme of closures in the summer of this year.
“I believe that the closures I have announced today, along with the other strands of the wider Modernisation Programme being taken forward by NICTS, will enable us to achieve the objective I outlined earlier.”