Future of courthouse: Plans being drawn up for ‘local justice hub’

Lisburn Courthouse.
Lisburn Courthouse.

Plans are being drawn up aimed at securing the long-term future of Lisburn Courthouse.

The Railway Street building had been earmarked for closure as part of a cost-cutting process. But Justice Minister Claire Sugden reversed that decision this week, meaning the city’s courthouse will remain open for at least another few years.

Ms Sugden’s announcement to the Assembly on Tuesday halted plans approved by her predecessor, David Ford, to close Lisburn and five other regional courthouses.

As part of the move, Ms Sugden has asked the Chief Executive of the Court Service to establish a review of what the future of court services should look like in 2020 and beyond.

Welcoming the Minister’s announcement, local stakeholders who campaigned for the retention of the courthouse are now working on proposals aimed at securing its long-term future, which could see the building become a “local justice hub”.

Chairman of Lisburn & Castlereagh City Council’s Strategic Community Planning Partnership, Alderman William Leathem, said: “We are delighted that Lisburn Courthouse will remain open for the foreseeable future and would like to thank all parties who campaigned for its retention.

“The new Justice Minister has proposed a review of future court services. The council has already commissioned a piece of research that looks at this very issue; how our local courthouse can be best utilised to provide a range of judicial services to best meet the needs of our local community.

“Our proposed options, having consulted with our partners, include providing once central location which provides a wealth of services, both in and outside the courtroom, including family and young people’s services, mediation, dispute resolutions as well as restorative justice programs. The council would be hopeful that this research can be considered as part of the future of our local courthouse in Lisburn.”

Praising the Minister for her “pragmatic approach” to the issue, Lagan Valley MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson stressed that removing court facilities from the city would cause hardship for many local people.

“The Minister has invited us to submit proposals to maximise the use of the courthouse and this decision will give us time to bring forward such proposals to enhance the use of these facilities as a local Justice and Community Hub,” he said.

Also welcoming the announcement, Janice Spence, Chairperson of Lisburn Solicitors’ Association, commented: “We are delighted that the Minister agrees that it is time to pause, to take account of our justice system and to do all that we can to improve it.

“It is evident that the Minister acknowledges the importance of justice at a local level. We are looking forward to helping her and her department work towards continuing to improve justice for all the people of Lisburn.”

Describing the move to retain the courthouse as “a very good day for local justice”, Ulster Unionist MLA Jenny Palmer said: “I look forward with interest to the innovative approaches to use of the department’s estate - the establishment of a Substance Abuse Court, a Family Drug and Alcohol Court and other potential pioneering uses of the courthouse. The review of civil and family justice raises many new and exciting opportunities, and I hope that the Minister will work with those of us that represent the area to establish the best way forward.”

Thousands of people in Lisburn signed a petition opposing the Northern Ireland Courts Service rationalisation scheme, which proposed that Lisburn Courthouse should close and business be transferred to Laganside Courts in Belfast.

The Minister’s decision to retain the courthouse has been widely welcomed by several political representatives for the area, including Edwin Poots MLA, Cllr Tim Mitchell and Paul Givan MLA, who has written to the Director of the Public Prosecution Service asking about the future of staff who were moved from premises in Linenhall Street in Lisburn to other locations.

Meanwhile, one local MLA, the Alliance Party’s Trevor Lunn, has questioned where the Minister is going to find the funding needed to keep the six local courthouses open.

“Good progress had already been made in streamlining processes and timings in the justice system, but I have concerns that this decision to retain under-utilised buildings is a backward step in challenging financial times,” he said.

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