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Minister dismisses claims courts closure would deny access to justice

Details of the outcome of the consultation on plans to close Armagh Courthouse will go before Justice Minister David Ford this month.

And the Minister has said that he will “wish to carefully consider” all of the responses and recommendations before reaching any conclusions on the future of the city courthouse and others which are facing the axe.

The Minister has also dismissed claims that the rationalisation of the courts estate will deny people access to justice.

And he has reiterated that maintaining the current level of courthouses just is not feasible in the current financial climate.

He was speaking during a debate in the Assembly this week when Fermanagh and South Tyrone Ulster Unionist MLA Neil Somerville sought an update on the current situation.

The consultation on the rationalisation of the court estate closed on May 18.Courthouse

Mr Ford confirmed that the responses have now been analysed and “advice will be submitted” to himself as Minister later this month.

The Minister said: “I am aware of the concerns of a small number of people about a number of courthouses across Northern Ireland. The reality is that access to justice is not about having a courthouse in every town: it is about ensuring that we have proper, fit-for-purpose courthouses with modern facilities.

“In the context of the financial circumstances that we live in, the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service, like other agencies, has to deliver significant savings in the coming years.

“That cannot be done by maintaining 20 courthouses for a population of 1.8 million; rationalisation is required. The important thing is to ensure that courthouses meet the needs of people when they get there, rather than having inadequate facilities in every town and village.”

Sinn Fein’s Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA Sean Lynch asked the Minister if he would agree that his views on the closures were not shared by the Lord Chief Justice?

And he also put it to Mr Ford: “Does he agree that the current proposals will undermine access to and quality of justice?”

The Minister said he certainly did not agree that the proposals would undermine access to justice.

“Justice may be slightly further away, but if it is in a better building with better facilities – for example, in order to segregate vulnerable victims and witnesses from the alleged perpetrators of crimes – then I believe that that will be a bonus for access to justice,” he told the Assembly.

“I have just heard the Lord Chief Justice give his annual speech for the start of the legal year and, while he expressed his concerns, I note his acknowledgement that there are significant issues around finances that need to be addressed.

“For example, I note the good work that has been done by the presiding district judge, which is already resulting in a reduction in the number of court sitting days required.

“That is all the more reason why we should be concentrating those court sittings in modern, fit-for-purpose courthouses.”

Newry and Armagh SDLP representative Dominic Bradley quizzed the Minister specifically on relation to Armagh and plans to transfer business to Craigavon and Newry.

“I do not know where he gets the idea that only a small number of people are concerned about this issue,” said Mr Bradley. “I attended the public meeting in Armagh Courthouse, and all of the political parties on the then council were against its closure.

“Does the Minister agree with me that the closure of Armagh Courthouse will downgrade Armagh’s status as a city and deny people access to justice locally? The legal profession believes that it will lead to the backlogging of cases in Craigavon and Newry Courthouses.”

The Minister said that again, the evidence from the proposals that were put forward was that “adequate court sittings could be provided, in those courthouses proposed to be retained, to meet the needs of court sittings in those proposed for closure”.

Mr Ford said he did not believe that that would impinge on access to justice.

The Minister added: “I am well aware how local councillors tend to view facilities in their towns or cities, but that is not the basis on which we can take a rational decision on how to fund the operations of the Courts and Tribunals Service in the years ahead.

“It is not the function of the Department of Justice to maintain historic buildings, as some have suggested; it is the function of the Department of Justice to provide a fit-for-purpose and modern justice system for the people of Northern Ireland.

“That is what we are seeking to do, within the financial constraints that we have been put under.”

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