Justice Minister Naomi Long today welcomed the opening of Northern Ireland’s first Nightingale venue to facilitate courts and tribunals business.
Following Executive ministers’ approval of the plan at their meeting on December 17 and the amendment of the Coronavirus regulations, the International Convention Centre in Belfast (ICC) was today deployed as a Nightingale venue to support Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS) operations.
However, in light of the new Covid restrictions introduced by the Executive for six weeks from December 26, all NICTS activity at the ICC is being phased in and is only taking place after it has been subject to all necessary risk assessments in consultation with the Public Health Agency, the Health and Safety Executive and other statutory agencies.
Minister Long said: “From the moment lockdown occurred in March, NICTS staff, the judiciary, the legal profession and the wider justice family worked hard to ensure justice did not grind to a halt.
“They achieved that by deploying technology for remote and hybrid hearings and by also holding a limited number of physical hearings at five court hubs. The gradual reopening of court venues during the summer enabled jury trials to resume in six venues with stringent Covid protection measures in place for all court users and significant adaptations to the layout of the courtrooms.
“This work has enabled the judiciary, tribunal panel members and NICTS staff to make inroads into the backlog of court and tribunals cases that built up when lockdown occurred.
“They have done that against the backdrop of public health requirements requiring a reduced capacity in hearing rooms, waiting areas and NICTS offices to accommodate social distancing. What they have achieved is no mean feat and I applaud all involved.
“The deployment of ICC Belfast as a Nightingale venue will help our courts and tribunals to make further inroads into the case backlog during 2021, as well as freeing up other courtrooms in the Laganside Court complex that are being used for juror deliberation. I am delighted that such an important asset, as ICC Belfast undoubtedly is, is being put to use in this way.”
The ICC will provide flexible accommodation for -
- Coroners Court hearings;
- Tribunals business such as welfare appeals;
- Pre-hearing consultation space for legal representatives to help the disposal of courts and tribunals business;
- Jury assembly and deliberations which will free up capacity in Laganside Court by moving away from the current need to use two courtrooms for each Crown Court trial.
In light of the new Covid restrictions introduced on December 26, only jury assembly is taking place at the ICC this week.
However it is hoped, subject to rigorous risk assessments, that benefits appeals hearings and Coroner’s inquests will take place in the coming weeks.
The Minister explained: “NICTS will not be undertaking any additional activity at the ICC that wouldn’t otherwise occur in one of its own venues.
“The facilities at the ICC actually provide more space for social distancing than is currently the case on NICTS’s Belfast estate.
“All activity, however, will be phased in. In the first week of operation, the ICC is hosting a jury panel call which will adhere to social distancing and other public health protection requirements. Summons have already been issued to allow Crown Court trials to continue in Belfast during January.
“In subsequent weeks, we intend to introduce Appeals Service hearings and Coroners Inquests. It should be noted that the use of a larger external venue will facilitate the physical attendance of more relatives of the deceased at inquests than is currently the case in Laganside.
“Given the evolving situation around Covid, NICTS will continue to work closely with the judiciary, with tribunal panel members and public health bodies to assess the implications for all its operations and to also make sure that all activity at the Nightingale venue and its properties can be conducted safely.”
ICC Belfast, Waterfront Hall and Ulster Hall’s chief executive Julia Corkey said: “We are delighted to welcome NICTS to ICC Belfast to support its back office, courts and tribunals operations. The pandemic has resulted in a backlog of cases and we are pleased to be able to provide the space required to enable NICTS to continue to provide its important service in a Covid secure way.”
Notes to editors:
- When lockdown initially occurred in March 2020, the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service, in conjunction with the Office of the Lord Chief Justice, initially operated hubs for a limited number of physical hearings. Remote and hybrid court hearings were also conducted.
- By September 2020, 16 NICTS venues reopened, with jury trials resuming in six Courthouses– Laganside, Craigavon, Newry, Dungannon, Coleraine and Antrim after significant adaptations were made to courtrooms to provide protection for all court users from Covid-19.
- Nightingale venues have been introduced in England and Wales to support Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service’s efforts to reduce the backlog of criminal, civil, family and tribunal cases which built up in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic.
- To enable NICTS to use external conference facilities in Northern Ireland as Nightingale venues, the Executive has amended the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No 2) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020.
- The International Convention Centre (ICC) Belfast was chosen as the most suitable Nightingale venue after a trawl was conducted by NICTS of the central and local government estate in Belfast in conjunction with the Strategic Investment Board,(SIB) Land and Property Services (LPS) and the Departmental Solicitor’s Office.(DSO)
- Significant discussions and engagement took place with Belfast City Council and BWUH Ltd, the company under which ICC Belfast and sister entertainment brands, Waterfront Hall and Ulster Hall operate.
- Technical due diligence was completed with the assistance of the LPS on the basis of a commercial rental property transaction before the contract was concluded. The contract will initially run until the 31 March 2021
- A £29.5m extension to the venue was unveiled in 2016. The redevelopment was funded by Belfast City Council, Tourism NI and the European Regional Development Fund.
- ICC Belfast contains a 2,200-seat auditorium, two interconnecting multi-purpose halls spanning over 2,500m2, a 380-seat studio, 20 meeting rooms for 10 to 200 delegates, gallery and bar areas, two exterior terraces with stunning riverside views of the Lagan and a dedicated riverside entrance leading to a 660m2 reception area.
- Currently, there are no other plans for Nightingale venues to support courts and tribunals business outside of Belfast. However, NICTS and the Office of the Lord Chief Justice are keeping the situation under constant review.
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