Top judge warns over court closures despite reprieve

Newtownards Courthouse
Newtownards Courthouse

A reprieve for two of eight courthouses listed for closure in Northern Ireland has failed to allay the concerns of the region’s top judge.

Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan has reiterated his warning about the potential impact on the administration of justice after Stormont officials confirmed the closures of courts in Enniskillen and Newtownards would not proceed at this time.

Earlier this year Sir Declan said he was concerned the original proposal for eight closures would hit the most vulnerable in society.

Proposals to shut the courts in Armagh, Ballymena, Limavady, Lisburn, Magherafelt and Strabane are still set to proceed.

The decision to keep Enniskillen and Newtownards open follows a lengthy public consultation exercise by the Department of Justice.

The final decision on all the courts is due to be made by Justice Minister David Ford in January, but he is unlikely to contradict his department’s new revised proposals.

Responding to the latest plan, a spokeswoman from the Office of the Lord Chief Justice said: “The Lord Chief Justice made his views known when he met with the Justice Committee in March 2015 and in the written response submitted on behalf of his office to the consultation exercise.

“It remains a matter of real regret to him that the closure of courthouses has effectively been imposed as a result of the current budgetary situation.

“He has asked that the potential impact for court users is fully considered if closures are being implemented and actions taken to minimise any adverse impact there may be, particularly on those who are the most vulnerable in society.”

While Enniskillen courthouse is not closing it will now only open on days when there are court hearings listed.

Business will continue as usual at Newtownards, but a large question mark remains over its future.

Its closure has only been stopped as the DoJ does not currently have the funding to go ahead with developing a new family court facility in the Old Townhall in Belfast.

Senior Courts Service official Ronnie Armour outlined the revised proposals to members of Stormont’s Justice committee on Thursday afternoon.

“I am in no doubt that these recommendations will cause concern for committee members, for court users and for the wider public,” he said.

“Implementing them will be challenging and the impact of closures of this scale will be far-reaching.”

Mr Armour said cuts to DoJ funding had left the department with little alternative but to rationalise the courts estate. He said the proposed closures would deliver £1.1 million in savings a year.

He added: “The proposals are extensive and regrettable but unfortunately in the current financial climate we believe they are necessary.”