Justice Minister David Ford has been asked to consider establishing a community justice centre – to help address and reduce offending fuelled as a result of drug and alcohol addiction – at Armagh Courthouse.
The suggestion came from Newry and Armagh Ulster Unionist MLA Danny Kennedy during a sitting of the Justice Committee at Stormont this week.
The committee was debating at length a report on ‘Justice in the 21st Century — Innovative Approaches for the Criminal Justice System in Northern Ireland’.
Members of the Justice Committee have recently returned from fact-finding visits to the Brookyln area of New York and Glasgow in Scotland and were able to see how effective programmes were there at tackling some types of offending.
Mr Kennedy – one of those who took part in the visits – suggested that a future use for Armagh Courthouse, one of seven local courts due to close this year, could be found as a community justice centre.
And it was a suggestion which brought endorsements of ‘hear hear’ from some fellow committee members.
Mr Kennedy shared with the House some observations made by committee members during the visits to the problem-solving courts in Red Hook, in Brooklyn, Brownsville, also in New York State, and to the Glasgow drug court.
He described the visits as “useful and insightful” and said recommendations in the report were sensible and, in many ways, “common-sense approaches that I think should be considered urgently in the new mandate by whoever becomes the Minister of Justice”.
Mr Kennedy continued: “There is also an important judicial role to select members of the judiciary who understand the value and benefits of problem-solving courts.
“Of course, there needs to be the opportunity to foster public confidence in the criminal justice system, so that people know that it is not a soft option and that sanctions are employed if people engage in repeat offending and do not take on board the lessons of the programmes that are offered to them.
“It is my view and, I think, the view of the committee that the underlying problems and root causes of offending behaviour in a range of areas, such as alcohol and drug addiction, must be tackled if reoffending rates are to be addressed, and so there is merit in exploring the introduction of problem-solving justice in Northern Ireland, particularly against a backdrop of increased budgetary pressure in the public sector.”
Making his pitch for Armagh to play a key role, the UUP MLA went on: “The Minister recently announced the rationalisation of the court estate, and whilst that is regrettable and many of us were critical and remain critical of that, there is perhaps an opportunity to think creatively about alternative uses for buildings once they cease to be fully functioning courthouses, perhaps even including transformation into community justice centres.
“May I suggest Armagh, not least because it is in my constituency? It could house something of that nature.”
Mr Kennedy said the committee recommended that a commitment to improve the criminal justice system be in the next Programme for Government.
And he added: “There is an opportunity, which I hope all parties will take, to engage seriously on how we can improve the criminal justice system in conjunction with other Departments and agencies through that discussion for a Programme for Government.”
Justice Minister David Ford said the reality was that “problem-solving courts are not simply a justice issue”.
“They need to involve a number of agencies and partners,” he added. “And I am committed to working with other members of the Executive on the appropriate innovative options.”
The Minister said he took on board the point made by the Newry and Armagh Assemblyman about the partnership that was needed between the Justice and Health Departments, particularly in dealing with alcohol and drug problems.
Mr Ford – picking up on the MLA’s argument for a potential future use for Armagh Courthouse and having listened to the other points made – said: “We need to take account of decreasing court business when we look at how we use the court estate, but those points will be borne in mind.”