Judge clears way for court closure challenge

Lisburn Court.
Lisburn Court.

A judge has cleared the way for legal challenges to decisions to shut Lisburn courthouse.

Leave was granted to seek judicial reviews of the planned closures in Strabane, Ballymena and Lisburn.

With the cases now advancing to a full hearing at the end of October, all three of the courthouses are expected to remain open until that stage at least.

Action is being taken against the Department of Justice separately by a firm of solicitors and two members of the public.

They claim the move is based on a flawed consultation process and equality impact assessment.

In February former Justice Minister David Ford announced five courthouses are to close - the three under challenge along with Armagh and Magherafelt.

He cited unprecedented financial pressures, falling staff levels and under-usage.

But his decision to shut Strabane is being challenged by John Fahy & Co, while two women who use facilities in Ballymena and Lisburn have brought similar cases.

At the High Court today it was claimed that the closures could impact on the administration of justice.

Mr Justice Horner also heard claims of a lack of publicity around the consultation process.

Tony McGleenan QC, responding for the Department, insisted there was extensive coverage in local press and posters in the courthouses.

He also argued the challenges should be dismissed over delays in bringing them to court.

However, the judge ruled that leave to seek a judicial review should be granted in all three applications.

Deciding that the Strabane closure should be the lead case, he said: “There’s a significant public interest element.”

Outside court a solicitor for the woman seeking to keep Lisburn Courthouse said she is a single mother on benefits who faces having to pay for travel to and from Belfast if the planned decision goes ahead.

Brian Moss, of Worthingtons Law, added: “Perhaps cases like this, challenging government cutbacks, will cause our government, whether central or local, to think again in terms of their austerity policies which are either resulting in the removal of public services, or making them more difficult to access for the most vulnerable members of our society.”