Ballymena Courthouse: Closure

Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 22nd February 2016.

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Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP 2:00 pm, 22nd February 2016

1. Mr Swann asked the Minister of Justice what steps he proposes to take to ensure that the closure of Ballymena courthouse does not impact negatively on access to justice for people in the area. (AQO 9668/11-16)

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

As I set out in my ministerial statement on 8 February 2016, access to justice is not simply a matter of physical proximity or about having courthouses in every town. In this context, it is about ensuring that court users are treated fairly and have access to appropriate services when they are needed. The closure of six courthouses will not see a reduction in scheduled court sittings, as business will transfer on a like-for-like basis to the new venues, so there is no reason that there would be any negative impact on access to court time.

The remaining courthouses in the estate will ensure that access to justice, within a reasonable travelling distance, is preserved for court users. I welcome the indication from the Lord Chief Justice that the judiciary is prepared to consider the timings for court proceedings and to explore the benefits of a more flexible court sitting day to alleviate any difficulties that individual users may have.

The Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS) has invested significantly in improvements to operating models and to the services that it provides to court users, particularly its IT infrastructure and the ability to support video links in all major courthouses. The retained venues are some of our more modern or larger courthouses, which offer advantages for vulnerable victims and witnesses, including better facilities for segregation.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I thank the Minister for his answer, in which he used the phrase "physical proximity". During questions on his earlier statement, he told me that there would be no job losses. Will he comment on the effect that the closure of Ballymena courthouse will have on the town — on the solicitors' practices and law offices that are based in the town because of the proximity to the courthouse and on the business that they create for shops, coffee houses and restaurants in the town?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I thank Mr Swann for his supplementary question. A small number of direct Courts Service jobs will move from Ballymena to Antrim. Living between Antrim and Ballymena, I have some knowledge of both towns. I would have thought that a significant number of solicitors' practices, given that they have a variety of interests and do not solely concentrate on business in courts, will continue in Ballymena because it is a significant shopping and market centre. The likelihood of any significant number of jobs moving, other than the small number of direct jobs in the Courts and Tribunals Service, is, I suspect, quite small.

Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP

The Minister will know that a considerable amount of money has been put into Ballymena courthouse in recent years to upgrade its facilities. Rather than leaving the building not fulfilling a function, would he look favourably on creating a community justice centre at Ballymena courthouse or, indeed, given the other facilities around the town, on piloting a drugs court there in future?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I appreciate the Committee Chair's question; indeed, he wrote to me recently about the issue. There are questions about whether it is possible to do alternative work beyond that which is being provided for and whether there is a displacement issue. I have asked officials to look at the Chair's suggestion, but that is a promise to look at the suggestion and not a promise to deliver anything specific at this point.

Photo of Raymond McCartney Raymond McCartney Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagraí go dtí seo. I thank the Minister for his answers. There seems to be a lack of clarity about the savings that will be made when the courthouses close. Some people say that, although there will be a saving, the Department will have to pay some money towards what is called "warm storage". Will he outline the exact amount of money that will be saved each year in each courthouse?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I do not have those figures with me. I have given them previously, and I can confirm that all the figures given to me were net of the cost of continuing to maintain businesses until such time as they are disposed of.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Of course, if access to justice for the people in the area really mattered to the Minister, he would not be closing the wonderful, expensively upgraded Ballymena courthouse. For all the platitudes that his actions speak towards, he could not care less about access to a courthouse for the people of Ballymena. Today, when asked how many jobs will be lost, he could not even put a figure on it. Will he at least put a figure on it so that we know?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

Along with the usual insults that we expect from Mr Allister, he asks me to answer a question that simply cannot be answered. I do not control the location of solicitors' offices, which are private businesses that locate where they wish. That was the point that I made very specifically to Mr Swann. I do not know whether Mr Allister, with his extensive legal experience, can tell solicitors where they will locate in the future, but I am afraid that I cannot.