Rationalisation of the court estate

Date published: 08 February 2016

Justice Minister David Ford said:

"I wish to make a statement on my decisions following the consultation by the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service on proposals to rationalise the court estate. Looking to the future, Northern Ireland requires a court estate that is capable of providing appropriate access to justice for the people of Northern Ireland and has the capacity and flexibility to manage the changing landscape of court business, including the changes in business volumes.

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, which has been extensive, began 12 months ago and has involved seven public events and a series of meetings with council delegations and other elected representatives. 97 written responses were received by NICTS; many of them expressing concern at the possibility of closing of a local courthouse. I would like to thank all those who took the time to provide their views on the proposals. I am also grateful for the constructive input from the Justice Committee as we sought to develop and refine the proposals.

At the outset, I acknowledge the sensitive nature of the proposals and the concerns about the potential impact that closures will have on court users. I would also wish to stress that rationalisation of the court estate is part of a wider process of modernisation which not only involves NICTS assessing where it delivers court and tribunal services but also how those services are delivered. The objective is to make greater use of technology; to provide courtrooms and other facilities for victims, witnesses and other court users that are fit for purpose and can operate in a way that meets people’s needs; and to ensure working practices efficiently deliver access to justice for all our citizens.

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.

In 2014/15 the utilisation rates in the courts under consideration for closure were:

Armagh 29.6%
Ballymena 38.8%
Enniskillen 42.8%
Limavady 23.3%
Lisburn 59.8%
Magherafelt 20.7%
Newtownards 62.6%
Strabane 29.7%

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.

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.

Having listened to the strong arguments advanced in relation to Enniskillen, I have decided that it should be retained and that it should become a Hearing Centre. This means that Enniskillen Courthouse will remain open on those days when a court is sitting, generally 2 or 3 days each week. On the days when there is no court sitting, the office will be closed. 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.

Notwithstanding this decision, the closure of Lisburn courthouse and the transfer of that business to Laganside Courts is achievable. However, as this is a minor variation on the original proposal in the consultation paper, consultees were given a further opportunity to submit any further views they had. Having considered the further representations received, I remain satisfied that Lisburn courthouse should close.

It is not, however, practicable to accommodate the court business currently dealt with in Newtownards at Laganside and I have therefore decided that the Newtownards Court should be retained at this time. Its longer-term future will be determined as and when decisions are taken in relation to the future use of the Old Townhall Building.

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.

While I have no doubt that some Members, some court users and some members of the public will have concerns about specific closures, I am 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.

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."


Notes to editors: 

All media enquiries should be directed to the Department of Justice Press Office on 028 9052 6444. Out of office hours please contact the duty press officer via pager number 0769 971 5440 and your call will be returned.

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