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Rationalisation of the Court Estate

Ministerial Statements – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:45 pm on 25th October 2016.

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Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Deputy Speaker 3:45 pm, 25th October 2016

I have received notice from the Minister of Justice that she wishes to make a statement on the rationalisation of the court estate.

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

I am grateful for the opportunity to come before the Assembly to make a statement on the proposals for the rationalisation of the court estate.

The Assembly will be aware that, following a public consultation exercise, my predecessor announced on 8 February 2016 his decision to close courthouses at Armagh, Ballymena, Lisburn and Strabane and reaffirmed his earlier decision to close the court buildings in Limavady and Magherafelt.

As Members know, in early May 2016, judicial review proceedings were commenced, challenging the decision to close Ballymena, Lisburn and Strabane courthouses. In view of that, when appointed as Justice Minister, I indicated that none of the six courthouses would close pending the outcome of the judicial review proceedings. Since taking that decision, I have had time to listen to a range of views on the issue and reflect on what will be a changing justice landscape during the Assembly mandate and beyond.

In determining the future shape of the court estate, it is important that I do so in the context of the Programme for Government. This represents a real opportunity for us to adopt new and innovative approaches to problems that have often seemed intractable, and I am determined that we should look for more radical solutions based on the concept of problem-solving justice.

My Department is already working on a pathfinder project that will lead to the establishment of a pilot substance misuse court and, in due course, a family, drug and alcohol court. Plans are also in place to further build on the success of the domestic violence court that has been operating successfully in Derry/Londonderry. Those are just some examples of how a problem-solving approach to justice has the potential to make a real difference in people's lives.

Separately, it will be important to consider carefully the emerging recommendations of the review of civil and family justice, which is being led by Lord Justice Gillen. The preliminary reports from that review recommend greater use of mediation and alternative dispute-resolution procedures, the digitalisation of court processes and the establishment of civil and family justice centres.

As we look to these and other opportunities to improve the way we deliver justice in Northern Ireland, I have concluded that now is not the time to proceed with court closures of the scale envisaged. Consequently, I have decided to reverse the decision taken in the previous mandate, and I have instructed my officials to advise the High Court accordingly. I have not taken that decision lightly, and I am, of course, aware that the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service will have to find savings in other areas of its budget if it is to deliver the efficiencies that are expected of it. However, given the changing justice landscape, I have concluded that we should retain maximum flexibility within the court estate for the time being.

At the same time, I have asked the chief executive of the Courts and Tribunals Service to establish a review of what the future of court services should look like in 2020 and beyond. This Courts 2020 review, together with the decision I am announcing this afternoon, will ensure that we plan for a modern courts service that delivers access to justice for the people of Northern Ireland.

I commend this decision to the House.

Photo of Doug Beattie Doug Beattie UUP

I thank the Minister for her very welcome statement that these six named courthouses have received a reprieve. That is welcome for access to justice. She will know that my party has been calling for this all along; so, of course, it is a positive move, and I thank her for it. The question might be this: with the Courts 2020 review, what guarantees can she give that we will not be back in a position of uncertainty in the very near future?

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

I thank the Member for his questions and kind wishes. There is an opportunity with this decision to look at our court system and see how we can better utilise court services. I have very much followed a policy of problem-solving justice, and I referred to the domestic court in Derry/Londonderry. We are also looking at a substance misuse court. In my tenure as Justice Minister, I would like to try to tackle some of these issues upstream and stop people getting to court in the first place. There are opportunities in the community to enable that to happen. We could perhaps use the courts estate to facilitate that type of approach. I think that this is a very positive decision. I have listened to the House and to local government. This is not something that was wanted, and that is why I have come to my decision.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I thank the Minister for this statement and her action. This is a strong decision: to reverse the previous Minister's decision on courthouse closures. The wrong decision was taken then; the right decision is being taken now. Although justice was devolved to us a number of years ago, maybe we are only now starting to see the spirit of devolution entering the officialdom of the DOJ. It is a very good day for democracy, as opposed to the courts.

The Minister mentioned innovation in the courtroom, a problem-solving approach and the establishment of civil and family justice centres, which were, of course, mentioned in Lord Justice Gillen's report. Will the Minister detail the work she has done on that aspect and whether Ballymena courthouse could be used for one of those centres or pilot schemes?

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

I thank the Member for his kind wishes and comments on how we could better utilise the courts system. At this stage, I cannot confirm how we might use the courts. We are very much in the early stages as to how we can better utilise facilities in the courts estate. However, we will be looking at all the aspects of how we might utilise them. It will not be done just on a cost-cutting basis. I can confirm that the previous proposals would have realised a saving of about £800,000, and that is something that we will have to find. However, I am confident that, with the new approach that I am taking within the Department, we will be able to find those savings. I will want to have conversations with local government, councils and elected reps so that they have some way of determining the services in their constituencies. At the end of the day, that is what we are here for.

Photo of Michaela Boyle Michaela Boyle Sinn Féin

I, too, welcome the statement. It is a good news story, particularly for my area, Strabane. I take the opportunity to congratulate the many local solicitors, myself and a party colleague who lobbied your predecessor on this matter. Had closure proceeded, it would have significantly impacted on the people of Strabane in public service delivery, jobs and the local economy.

Minister, given the heavily fortified exterior of Strabane courthouse, can you confirm whether a move away from that militarised fortification will form part of the 2020 review of courthouses?

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

I thank the Member for her comments. I am quite happy to look at it as part of the review. This provides a fresh opportunity to see how we can move forward with the courts estate. It is something that the Member has raised with me in several questions and in conversations. Therefore, as part of this review, let us see how we can look forward for the Courts Service in 2020.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

My question is not about the decision but about how you came to it. This time yesterday, you said in the Chamber:

"I cannot comment on any aspect of the courts estate, pending the judicial review. When that has come to a conclusion, I am happy to have a conversation". — [Official Report (Hansard), 24 October 2016, p29, col 1].

Will you explain to the House how you had that position yesterday and a different position today? Will you explain to the House whether you received any legal advice that might have led you to that conclusion? Will you explain to the House how, overnight, you have come to a different decision from yesterday?

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

I thank the Member for his question. I am sure that he will be happy to know that I take the views of the House quite seriously. Mrs Barton asked me a question yesterday about the courts estate, and these things came to my mind when I considered this decision. The judicial review was expected to start this week, but it had not begun. From my perspective, I was taking all these things into account when I made this decision today. It is perfectly reasonable that I would want to consider the views of people in the House and then come to a decision like this. I am sure that the Member would expect that of me.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

I thank the Minister for her answers so far. She said that she hoped that the various initiatives that she has put in train would lead to less demand on the Courts Service, but less demand equals less requirement for courthouses. Is this not a review of a review? A perfectly good review was done under the previous Minister, which made firm recommendations and produced potential savings. While this review of a review goes on, how much will it cost the Courts Service?

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

I thank the Member for his question. One of my concerns about how my predecessor came to his conclusion is that a full impact assessment was not done of the implications of the courthouse closures. We have to be quite mindful that, whilst we are in government, of course we need to look at saving money, but we also have to assess how our decisions will have a wider impact on society. I have considered that in taking this decision forward. By all means, we need to look at our budgets and understand how we can make savings; that is the right thing to do. Equally, however, we need to look at how our decisions affect public services because, essentially, that is what we are here for: to provide good public services for the people of Northern Ireland.

I am fully aware of the challenges around the money that we need to save, but there is a better way to do this. This is a new mandate, I am a new Minister, and I have new priorities. I want to move justice forward in an innovative and radical way, and I will not just try to cut the fat from the system, of which there is very little left.

Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP

I thank the Minister for her statement and her comments so far. I am delighted with this announcement, which is not about protecting buildings but protecting services and looking at a new and better way of working our courts system, and I welcome that. Is she considering using the courthouses for things other than court business?

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

Yes, indeed. We need to look at this from internal and external perspectives. That is why, further to my announcement today, I have instructed my officials to do that assessment and chat to the stakeholders involved in order to understand how we could better use these buildings throughout the estate. I want local communities to have ownership of the courthouses. We are considering all options; I am quite happy for Members to share their views on how we can best do that, and I know that a number of Members have already done that in the past six months. There is an opportunity now to see how we can move forward with our court buildings.

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

Tréaslaim leat, a Aire, as an scéal dearfach seo. Scéal iontach atá ann. Thank you, Minister. This is good news: well done. I thank you for your consideration and the manner in which you have brought the news to the Assembly. Will you confirm that the terms of reference that are set for the chief executive of the Courts Service will be premised on access to justice and problem-solving justice and will have due regard for ensuring that the most marginalised in our society will have access to the courts estate? Will you undertake to share the proposed approach with the Justice Committee when you are in a position to do so?

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent 4:00 pm, 25th October 2016

Yes is the answer to all your questions. We have to be mindful of providing access to justice to the most vulnerable. When we look at the estate, that will be one of the considerations. I am happy to share that with the Justice Committee so that it, too, can have an input into how we can do this in the right way.

Photo of Sammy Douglas Sammy Douglas DUP

I, too, welcome the decision by the Minister. It is a very brave decision. As a member of the Justice Committee, I know that the Committee was lobbied by a lot of people, including a lot of families with children. The changes would have had a really negative impact on their lives, with some having to travel for 10 or 20 miles to get justice.

Your statement says that you will:

"adopt new and innovative approaches to problems that have often seemed intractable".

It continues:

"My Department is already working on a pathfinder project that will lead to the establishment of a pilot Substance Misuse Court and in due course a Family Drug and Alcohol Court."

They seem very interesting projects. Will you outline some of the ideas behind that thinking?

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

I thank the Member for his question. The problem-solving justice approach is, in its basic form, a common-sense approach to justice and one that is mindful of the hurdles that get in people's way and can lead them into the criminal justice system. I have reiterated time and again in the House that I do not believe that anyone is born bad; I believe that it is a product of the circumstances that they find themselves in. We often find that people with mental health issues and people who misuse drugs and alcohol or perhaps have other social and economic issues are led by those circumstances into the criminal justice system. We have seen in other parts of the world, namely America and Scotland, how taking this approach has almost given offenders the opportunity to realise that it was down to their circumstances and to take a different approach to justice. It serves no one to put people in custody. If we can do it in a better way, it will have positive repercussions not only for wider society but, on a pragmatic level, for reducing the heavy resources currently in place.

The problem-solving justice approach is innovative and new. It will take time to work through, but we are keen to move forward with it. In the new Programme for Government, it will be the overarching theme that threads its way through my priorities in the next five years.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I, too, welcome the statement by the Minister reversing the decision to close the courts. Her statement highlights a range of alternative court systems: a substance misuse court, a family drug and alcohol court and a domestic violence court. These are different models, and she may well need homes for those alternatives. Her statement says that in order to allow the "Courts 2020 Review" to take place:

"now is not the time to proceed with court closures of the scale envisaged"

When does she envisage the review will be completed, and might some of the reprieves be temporary?

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

I thank the Member for his question. The Criminal Justice Inspection report that led to my predecessor's decision to close a number of courthouses across Northern Ireland demonstrated that the service that we were providing was underutilised. However, the approach of just closing those courthouses was the wrong one, in the sense that we have to have an understanding of the wider impact of courthouse closures on access to justice, which some Members talked about. I will take the widest possible view of this. It would be remiss of me as Justice Minister not to consider the wider implications, whether they fall within my remit or not.

The Northern Ireland Executive are in a new space, and we are trying to work together on these issues. It is quite a message to the House that the majority have welcomed my statement. We are at the beginning of the process, and I welcome all Members playing a part in that. Up to now, you have been very good at sharing with me your views on this area. Now that I have made the decision, I will be happy, moving forward, to hear those views.

Photo of Raymond McCartney Raymond McCartney Sinn Féin

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. I thank the Minister for her decision. I have to say that I was a bit surprised that a wider impact assessment was not carried out on the previous decision. That aside, one of the features of the review was the underuse of courthouses, so a strategy has to be put in place so that they are used more in the future. What are the Minister's views of what that might entail? As part of the previous process, the decision to close Strabane would have meant more business in Omagh. It was obvious that there were disability access issues in Omagh that the previous Minister said would be addressed. I hope that addressing disability access will still be on your agenda.

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

I am happy to look at all these things moving forward. That is the right approach to take. Yes, the last review showed that there was an underutilisation of the court estate, but, again, we need to be more creative in how we can use our court estate. That might not be for court proceedings; perhaps we can use them as mediation centres or advice centres. One of my overarching and key messages as Minister of Justice is that, if we can tackle these things upstream, hopefully they will not get downstream. That is when we have our problems and when we have already lost. An approach that stops these issues going to court is not just good for budgets and resources but good for the people of Northern Ireland because it means they do not have to go through that system. We need to be creative in how we do this. Just because we have never done it that way before does not mean that we cannot do that moving forward, and Northern Ireland is now in a position where we can start to satisfy these new ways of thinking.

Photo of George Robinson George Robinson DUP

After the extensive lobbying by my DUP colleagues and me, I warmly welcome and thank the Minister for her statement on reversing the decision on courthouse closure. Does the Minister agree that access to the justice system is essential in modern society, especially in rural areas like Limavady in her constituency?

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

Absolutely. Everybody has an entitlement to access justice, and, as a representative of a rural constituency, I am mindful of the particular challenges around access to justice in rural areas. Yes, I welcome his comments. All these things made me come to this decision. I think that it is a positive decision, and, if anything, it demonstrates that I have listened to the people of Northern Ireland.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

The Minister has made it fairly clear today that this decision is her personal decision; indeed, she rather suggested to Mr Attwood that it was one that she had taken in the last 24 hours. The decision is to reverse my decision of last February, which was based on a consultation and based on solid evidence produced by the staff of the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service, including an impact assessment that, it appears, has not been seen by members of the Justice Committee or, indeed, by the Minister herself. Given that it is the Minister's personal decision, could she tell us how she plans to fund the £1·1 million that will now be spent on keeping half-empty courthouses in operation, not to mention the ongoing costs for the Police Service and Prison Service, both of which would have seen reductions in expenditure? Since it is her decision, she clearly has a plan for how to fund it.

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

The Member is absolutely right: it is a personal decision because I am now the Minister of Justice. In coming to the decision, I have had a wider review of the issues that have been brought to me. In anticipating what might have happened around the court estate, I have listened to Members. I have received numerous bits of correspondence from local government to ask me to reconsider the decision, and I think that it is only responsible that I do that.

The Minister — the former Minister; I beg your pardon — refers to the wider impact assessment. I think that we need to do more, and I will certainly not do that in isolation as the Department of Justice. I will do that along with my Executive colleagues, other Members of the House, agencies and constituents across Northern Ireland. Yes, he rightly alludes to the fact that this was an exercise in cost-cutting, but I want to take a more strategic approach. It is not just about cost-cutting; it is about how we can best service the people of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

I warmly welcome the Minister's statement, in particular her decision to retain the historic courthouse in Armagh city. That will be warmly welcomed by my constituents. I hope that it will not be a temporary reprieve pending the outcome of the Courts 2020 review announced by the Minister. Will she take the opportunity to pursue with her officials the possibility of using Armagh courthouse as a venue for problem-solving courts to help maximise its use?

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

Yes, I am happy to look at the entire court system to see how best it can be utilised, now that we are in this new space of policy development and are taking a more strategic, holistic approach to justice. I am happy to consider all venues for my new policy.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

I have to say that I regret your decision and announcement today, Minister. You indicated that this is a personal decision. How many other personal decisions have you made as Justice Minister? Do you not make decisions based on facts, figures and information? Surely that is how to make a decision, not on a personal whim.

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

It would be quite difficult to remove myself from the role of Justice Minister. I stood here six months ago to the day and accepted the role. The comments that the Member makes are weak. I am a balanced person. I am independent and do not have party political baggage on any issues that come to the House. I take a balanced perspective on any issues that are brought to me. Perhaps I am the most balanced person in the House, because everything brought to me for a decision will be dealt with as and when it comes. The fact that the only people against this are Members from the Alliance Party, who happen to be the former Justice Minister's colleagues, suggests that it is they who have more personal issues here than me.

Some Members:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Eamonn McCann Eamonn McCann People Before Profit Alliance

If the Minister is not already embarrassed by the praise that has been heaped on her, I will say fair play to her for the decision that she has taken.

Still on the subject of access to courts and to justice, does she welcome the suggestion that the High Court ought occasionally to meet somewhere other than in Belfast? In Scotland, the High Court meets in three separate locations; in Wales, it is 15; and in England, it is 28. Here, it is Belfast, Belfast, Belfast. If the High Court were to meet occasionally in Derry, that would improve access to the courts for people in Derry, Fermanagh and Tyrone and would also be greatly welcomed by lawyers and other court workers in Derry. As a final point, Derry people who have to travel to Belfast and back again for court arrive exhausted —

Photo of Eamonn McCann Eamonn McCann People Before Profit Alliance

— and are therefore under a disadvantage compared with others. I speak from some experience in the matter.

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

I thank the Member for his comments. They are well noted, and I am happy to look at the issues that he has addressed in conversations with the Lord Chief Justice, who has ultimate responsibility in that area.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I greatly welcome the decision, particularly the reprieve for the very historic courthouse in Ballymena, a place I spent many happy, challenging and, I suppose, rewarding hours.

[Laughter.]

It is patently obvious that this right decision was made in anticipation of defeat in the upcoming judicial review. What lessons have been learnt or will be learned by officials in her Department who thought that, with the aid of the previous, compliant Minister, they could railroad through such ill-judged decisions?

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

Since becoming Justice Minister six months ago to the day, I have learnt an awful lot of lessons, but perhaps the biggest is that, as the Government, we have to listen to the people of Northern Ireland. We can do that through the Assembly or by going out and chatting to people, and I believe that that is what happened on this issue. We can truly reflect the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland by giving them the services they want.

Photo of Paul Girvan Paul Girvan DUP 4:15 pm, 25th October 2016

I thank the Minister for her statement to the House and welcome it. I want to ask her about staff. On the previous Minister's announcement, the PPS had already made a decision and had taken the opportunity to either relocate staff or ask them to go under the voluntary exit scheme (VES). Is there any understanding as to what will happen to those staff? Will they be offered the opportunity to come back to their facilities?

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

I thank the Member for his question. Indeed, I will be meeting the Director of Public Prosecutions this afternoon. It is certainly something about which we will have a discussion, particularly further to this decision. I realise that it is a departure from the previous Minister's decision on this. We are mindful of all those things as we move forward. I am quite happy to have that conversation when I meet him shortly.