Consultants are to be employed to draw up a case to save Armagh Courthouse for closure.
Armagh City and District Council will also rally support from members of the legal profession as they fight united to save the iconic building from the axe.
Fears were expressed at the February meeting of the council’s public services committee over the impact the loss of the Courthouse would have on the city.
And there were further warnings that more public sector jobs could be lost in the future.
The Courthouse has been earmarked for closure by Justice Minister David Ford, as part of a move to reduce the courts estate and save money.
A number of options are under consideration for where the business normally carried out in Armagh will be transferred, but both Newry and Craigavon, it has been stated, will be sufficient to take on the extra requirements.
Councillors of all parties spoke on the issue at the meeting and all were in agreement that actions needs to be taken now as a matter of urgency before it’s too late.
SDLP Councillor Thomas O’Hanlon had suggested writing to Minister Ford.
He said he had been contacted by members of the legal profession in the city expressing their concerns and, whilst access to justice services would be one argument for retention of the building as a Courthouse, it should also be recognised that it was an iconic building in a strategic location and, if left empty, it “would be a travesty”.
Councillor O’Hanlon said access to other court facilities throughout the Province would be “somewhat limited”, with the public having to travel to Craigavon or Newry.
He said he understood that the Department had spent a considerable sum on the building in the past two years to bring it up to the required specification for courts, tribunals and other business.
The SDLP representative suggested that the council should begin a process of engagement with the local law fraternity, the Probation Service, Victims’ Aid organisations and other organisations to argue the case.
Independent Unionist Councillor Paul Berry agreed and said the building dated back to 1806.
He highlighted the importance of putting forward a strong argument within council, as a corporate body, for the retention of court services to avoid a “negative impact for service users”.
Councillor Berry said it seemed like another attack on the City of Armagh and council needed to fight hard to keep court services and tribunals in Armagh.
He believed that, if a strong argument was put forward in a professional manner, the Department would listen, adding that it would “be a shame to see the building become dormant or go to other uses”.
Armagh had not done well in terms of investment by large businesses and job creation, Ulster Unionist Jim Speers commented in endorsing the points already made.
He agreed the council should begin the process of putting forward a strong argument and suggested there would be those within the city who would be happy to help with statistical evidence, such as the legal profession.
He remarked that the Courthouse was “a tremendous building and to see it used in another way not fitting to it would be inappropriate”.
DUP Councillor Gareth Wilson said the process needed to be led by the legal profession in terms of the argument for ease of access and Armagh-centred services, with support from the local council.
He said gthe Courthouse building was also used for DLA appeals and he would be keen to see it retained as a venue for this and also for justice services among others.
Councillor Wilson said it would be unfortunate to witness the potential impact on Armagh and he hoped it could be avoided.
Sinn Fein’s Garath Keating echoed the sentiments and said some of his party colleagues had lobbied for the refurbishment of the building.
He believed the proposals would be “another blow to services in Armagh” and referred to the public’s reading of press articles about other services that had been removed.
Councillor Keating emphasised the importance of the justice service and indicated that his party wished to support efforts made with the Minister of Justice.
UUP Councillor Sylvia McRoberts commented that, during the past few years, people had seen the gradual withdrawal of services previously provided in the Courthouse, which had possibly caused it to be identified for closure.
She emphasised that council needed to put forward a strong case for the retention of existing services and also the identification of services that should and could be provided in the building.
Councillor McRoberts suggested that consideration be given to the services previously lost to ascertain if they could be returned to Armagh.
She understood that many court sittings had been moved to Craigavon and Dungannon and suggested the Minister should reconfigure services to bring more back to Armagh.
Council Chief Executive John Briggs said some specialist support would be necessary in order to collate a report detailing the council’s argument, due to the type of report required and its specialist nature, taking into account also the pressure staff were currently under as a result of the new council.
Councillor McRoberts agreed that specialist support would be necessary and emphasised that the loss of the Courthouse “would be a big blow”.
Mr Briggs said the council needed to rally together members of the legal profession and others to have Courthouse services retained and returned. He suggested there could be complementary activities that would support the Courthouse.
Councillor O’Hanlon suggested that if specialist support was appointed, it would be necessary for them to work with the legal fraternity locally.
He emphasised that the cost of any support should be kept under budget as much as possible.
In response to a query from Councillor Keating as to the content of the report, Mr Briggs said that it would consider both existing and potential service users and would involve liaison with legal services and others.
He referred to the city’s reliance on public sector jobs.
Councillor O’Hanlon warned that, if the building became dormant and staff redeployed to court service facilities elsewhere, the knock-on effect of that on Armagh’s economy should be investigated.
Mr Briggs said the redeployment of public sector jobs had been a significant issue for the Armagh area and it was possible that there would be further cuts in that sector in years to come.
Councillor Keating expressed a slight apprehension regarding proceeding to engage a consultant and suggested that a meeting be held with stakeholders to ascertain whether they could lead the project with support from the council.
But the Chief Executive explained it was not being proposed to tender for consultancy services, but to use existing consultants with costs anticipated at less than £5,000.
He emphasised that it was a matter of presenting an urgent report to council at the earliest opportunity and, whilst contact would be made with stakeholders, in cases such as this, it was often up to the council to progress it.
Councillor Speers remarked that this would be “a sensible approach”.
Councillor Keating expressed concern that the public could question why the council was using a consultant’s services for an issue such as this.
Councillor McRoberts stressed that the council should initiate discussions immediately, as there was a danger that the Courthouse would be closed unless a consultant was engaged to “work on a report as soon as possible”.
It was agreed that officers proceed to engage a consultant’s services to produce a report – detailing the council’s argument against the closure of Armagh Courthouse – and that an update on costs etc, be provided to a meeting of the executive committee.
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