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Armagh Courthouse to be sold off if closure plan approved

Closing Armagh Courthouse would save the Department of Justice just over £217,000 a year – and the iconic building would then be sold off, Armagh I can exclusively reveal.

Two options locally are on the table but, come what may, both include the loss of the Armagh Courthouse.

In fact, we can reveal that it was a “poor” public transport system that actually saved Downpatrick Courthouse from the chop, with the spotlight falling on Armagh instead.

Eight courthouses across the Province are under threat, amid plans to reduce the number here from 20 to 12.

The number of divisions is also being reduced from seven to three.

Armagh, along with Newry and Mourne and Banbridge, currently form the County Court Division of Armagh and South Down.

If the plans are rubber-stamped, there would be three divisions only.

The South Eastern would cover the new super-council areas of Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon, and Newry, Mourne and Down.

The Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunal Service is seeking views on two possibilities for future services in the expanded area.

And, in a nutshell, it basically comes down to where the various court needs can be accommodated.

Under the first Specialist Court Centres proposal, Craigavon would become the main Civil, Family, Youth and Tribunals Centre for the Division and Newry will be the main Criminal Court Centre.

The second option would simply see all Armagh court business transferred to Newry.

It has been revealed that consideration had been given to closing Downpatrick Courthouse, which also would fall in the new South Eastern Division.

But what has been described as the “poor public transport links” have essentially saved it, as it was felt this would cause court users “real difficulty in traveling to either of the alternative venues”.

The closure of eight of our courts would save the Justice Department a total of £1,054,728 a year.

Armagh, Ballymena, Enniskillen, Limavady, Lisburn, Magherafelt, Newtownards and Strabane are all in the firing line.

Closing Armagh Courthouse would save a total of £217,406 a year, it has been estimated.

Justice Minister David Ford said yesterday (Wednesday): “Court closures will undoubtedly have a significant impact on court and tribunal users. But we are committed to working with the Judiciary to minimise the impact and to ensure efficient and effective service delivery.”

The actual savings achieved will depend on the final decisions made following the consultation process.

According to the NICTS, the savings in excess of £1 million does not include the additional consequential savings expected through a “reorganisation and streamlining of administrative business processes at the remaining venues”.

Staffing reductions would be accommodated through the Civil Service Voluntary Exit Scheme.

But it will have to cover some one-off costs associated with the closures if that is the road it is decided to go down.

Those costs will include preparing the buildings for closure and their eventual sale.

And, until such times as buyers can be found, there would be the further expense of securing and maintaining buildings, such as security and some basic heating costs.

Where the vacated building is Listed – which indeed Armagh Courthouse is – there could be even more money to be paid out to ensure compliance with statutory or regulatory obligations.

There’s the cost too of preparing the courts that will remain to accommodate additional staff, judiciary and court business, and  recurring costs – over a three year period – in relation to staff relocation costs.

Under both options locally, Downpatrick Courthouse will remain open and will deal with Crown, County and Magistrates’ business.

The NICTS says it is satisfied that there is “sufficient capacity in appropriate courtrooms” in Newry, Craigavon or Downpatrick to cover the needs of the whole of the new South Eastern Division.

It says there is also capacity to accommodate any Tribunals or Coroners’ courts required.

The public consultation opened today (Thursday) and runs until the end of April.

Views expressed are expected to be published on the NICTS website within three months of the end of the consultation period.

And the Courts and Tribunals Service said decisions taken in the light of the consultation will be “made public promptly” and the reasons given.

POLITICAL REACTION

Meanwhile, local politicians have expressed anger and concern over the closure plans for Armagh Courthouse.

Newry and Armagh Sinn Fein MLA Cathal Boylan told Armagh I: “The closure of the Courthouse in Armagh would have serious implications for many people who would be forced to travel significant distances in order to deal with issues currently addressed through the local court.

“Armagh Courthouse deals with many issues, apart from the criminal justice system, such as tribunals and inquests, so this closure and the resultant displacement of services will have a huge potential impact upon those who have to attend a court for whatever reason.

“The Minister has always claimed that the core aim of his Department is the development of a faster, fairer justice system, which is reflected in the Bill coming to the Assembly later this year, yet the closure of Armagh Courthouse, among others, flies in the face of that rhetoric and will inevitably result in backlogs in the justice system, loss in confidence in the justice system and a general decrease in access to justice.

“It may save the Department but at what cost to society. The safety of our community, and confidence in a justice system that is able to deliver, is of a much greater value and these proposals could place that in real jeopardy and should be wholly resisted.

“Sinn Féin will work alongside the local legal profession to respond to this consultation and we invite any interested parties to make contact with us.

“We will be taking all available opportunities to raise our concerns with the Justice Minister through the Justice Committee and in the Assembly.

“It is extremely disappointing that, if this proposal does become a reality, it will see the loss of local jobs and the disappearance of yet another vital service from Armagh City.”

The Ulster Unionist Party’s Newry and Armagh MLA Danny Kennedy has also vowed to oppose the plans to close Armagh Courthouse and has given notice of his intent to raise the issue with the Justice Minister David Ford.

Mr Kennedy said: “I totally disagree with the proposal to close Armagh Courthouse which is now out for consultation, and I will be raising this matter with the Justice Minister at the first available opportunity.

“The criminal justice system is already subject to an unacceptable level of delays in having cases coming to trial. This situation can only be exacerbated if fewer Courthouses are available.

“I am particularly opposed to any closure of Armagh Courthouse due to the fact that Armagh is a major population centre and has been the scene of many important cases over the years.

“Armagh Courthouse is an iconic building within the city of Armagh, standing as it does on the Mall. It was built between 1806 and 1809 by the architect of the GPO in Dublin.

“It was the target of a 1,000lb bomb in 1993 and is an important symbol of justice in the Armagh area.

“This closure decision is a direct consequence of recent ill-thought out budgets and I believe that the notion of saving money by closing Armagh Courthouse may well prove to be a false economy.

“Cases will obviously still need to be heard somewhere and all that will happen is that the courthouses that are still in operation will be faced with even greater backlogs than they face at present.

“In other words, closing courthouses will not save money but will inconvenience a great many people and limit their access to justice.”

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