Lisburn solicitors have said they will continue their campaign to keep the local courthouse open after Justice Minister David Ford confirmed he would be moving ahead with the closure of the facility, possibly by the summer.
Local politicians, members of the public and representatives of the legal profession had all campaigned to keep Lisburn Court open, with thousands of people signing a petition against the closure proposal.
However, on Monday (February 8) the Minister made his final decision on the matter, with Lisburn being one of five courthouses to close.
Making the announcement to the Stormont Assembly, Mr Ford said: “Northern Ireland requires a court estate that is capable of providing appropriate access to justice for the people of Northern Ireland and has the capacity and flexibility to manage the changing landscape of court business, including changes in volumes.
“At the outset, I acknowledge the sensitive nature of the proposals and the potential
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impact that closures will have on court users. I would also wish to stress that rationalisation of the court estate is part of a wider process of modernisation which not only involves NICTS assessing where it delivers court and tribunal services but also how those services are delivered.
“The reality is that Northern Ireland does not need the number of courthouses we currently have and we can no longer afford to retain them and to operate them.”
The Lisburn Solicitors, who spearheaded the campaign against the closure of the court said they would continue to lobby for the Lisburn courthouse to be saved. A spokesperson for the group said: “We continue to oppose the proposed closure of all 5 courts in Northern Ireland and with particular reference to Lisburn are extremely concerned. There has not only been a decision to close our local court, thereby eroding access to Justice for local people but there has been a further decision made, without proper and appropriate consultation that all local family cases will now be heard in Laganside courts and not in the ‘family centre’ previously proposed in the first consultation process. This will mean that families will have to sit near to or alongside members of the public attending court for criminal matters while waiting for their family case to be dealt with. The facilities in place in Laganside for court users in this area are already inadequate, with people sitting on the floor and not even having the opportunity to discuss difficult and delicate matters in private. Lisburn family court work will now be allocated alongside with it appears little or no thought to the end result.
“We will continue to lobby our local politicians to assist with the reversal of this decision and would urge every single person in Lisburn to do so.”
Lagan Valley MLA Edwin Poots, who sits on the Stormont Justice Committee, said he believed the Minister’s decision to close the courthouse is “particularly shortsighted”, claiming that any savings made would be “absolutely minimal if they existed at all”.
He continued: “More importantly, the human cost is much more significant in that most of the courts business is in family law and many vulnerable families will end up having to travel to Belfast and use Laganside. I do not believe Laganside Courthouse is capable of absorbing the additional numbers going through without there being a radical upheaval of how the courts do their business and I am not sure they are in a place to deliver in the timescale set out.”
Alderman William Leathem, speaking on behalf of Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council, said he was deeply disappointed by the decision, which will mean that Lisburn is the only city in Northern Ireland without a courthouse. “We will be seeking an urgent meeting with the Minister in order to put forward our deep concerns,” said Mr Leathem, Chairman of the Council’s Governance and Audit Committee. “I will also be reiterating our views, namely that the Lisburn Courthouse should be retained for family and children’s court services, given sensitivities within this area of the law, coupled with problems of overcrowding in other courts for the people concerned, including the vulnerable. Our objective is to give our area a voice for what is needed, for our economy, for the people who work in and who are connected to the Courthouse; whilst ensuring that stakeholders’ views and considerations are met.”
Lagan Valley MLA Jonathan Craig said he believed the Justice Minister had failed to listen to the views of local people on the issue. “In his statement the Justice Minister admitted that the court in Lisburn is utilised almost 60% of the time, one of the highest in Northern Ireland. Despite this he is keeping other courthouses open, which have utilisation figures as low as 30%.
“This is a situation which I believe could be open to Judicial review if challenged, and a situation which shows that we have a minister who has failed to listen not only to the elected members of Lagan Valley, including his own party colleagues, but has treated the Consultation process with scant regard, making this statement after only a week from the closure of the consultation process.”
Lagan Valley MLA Paul Givan said the decision to close the courthouse was “a hammer blow” to the city. “I am appalled by this decision to close Lisburn Courthouse. which will have a detrimental impact on people using the Court,” said Mr Givan. “The Justice Minister’s decision based on projected savings of just over £100,000 per year to his department will be far outweighed by the cost of Court users having to pay for travel and parking costs into Belfast. There will also be a negative impact upon solicitors and other professionals who have to represent their clients and provide information to the Courts having to spend more time travelling to Belfast.
“The haste at which the Minister reached his decision within days of the consultation period closing is alarming and despite alternative proposals being made that could have helped sustain the Courthouse, the Minister has ignored those calls and the impact will have, in my view, a negative impact on the administration of Justice and it is the public that will pay the price.”
The President of the Law Society of Northern Ireland, John Guerin, has said the closure of Lisburn courthouse will cause “great disruption, inconvenience and unnecessary stress to court users and those seeking access to justice.”
He continued: “The reality is that a reduced court infrastructure will mean an increased volume of cases being spread across a more limited range of court venues resulting in the potential for overcrowding and delays of business.
“Instead of serving to improve the efficiency of the justice system and protect access to justice, it will undermine the effectiveness of the system and leave those that need it most without access to their local court. It does not serve the interests of justice to leave communities without access to local courthouses.”
Lisburn and Castlereagh City TUV councillor Andrew Girvin and Lagan Valley Assembly candidate Lyle Rea issued a joint statement, expressing their dismay at the decision by the Minister. “Lisburn will now be one of the few cities in the UK without a court house and victims of crime will now face the added stress of travelling to Belfast,” they said. “David Ford from the very beginning has sought to close Lisburn court house, and appears unwilling to listen to any workable ideas which the community and elected representatives put forward.”