For the second time in just over a decade, Larne Courthouse is at risk of closure.
Justice Minister David Ford has asked for the public’s views on proposals to permanently close hearing centres in Larne, Bangor, Limavady, Magherafelt and Strabane. He said: “At a time of severe financial stringency, I believe it is necessary to direct our resources where they will deliver the greatest benefit.”
A concerted public campaign led by Larne Borough Council, supported by the legal profession in the town, succeeded in thwarting a bid to close the Victoria Road courthouse in the late Nineties.
Two years ago, the courthouse was downgraded to hearing centre status, which means it is only open to the public on days when petty sessions, youth and family courts are in session.
The Department of Justice consultation paper describes Larne courthouse as a single courtroom which has scheduled magistrates’ courts every Friday and on three Thursdays each month. In addition, there is approximately one small claims/County Court sitting per month.
“During 2010 Larne was used on 96 days, which equates to a courtroom utilisation rate of 38.4 per cent,” the document states, adding that there were no inquests and that the court is not used for tribunal hearings.
DOJ proposes to transfer Larne court business to Ballymena Courthouse, with no need to alter the fixed days on the court calendar. Larne criminal and departmental courts would transfer to Ballymena Court 2 and domestic, family and youth courts would sit in Court 3.
The Department states that it takes 35 minutes to travel the 20-mile distance by car and 50 minutes on a bus.
Inviting responses to a public consultation exercise which concludes on March 2, minister Ford said: “The reduction in public spending has necessitated a range of measures to be considered by my Department to deliver more efficient services to the public.
“The Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service already has in place alternative means of transacting over-the-counter business. Many routine services which were previously only available at local court offices can now be transacted online, or by telephone. These include fine and maintenance payments or the lodgment of small claims applications.
“Solicitors can now also check the position of their cases before the courts via online case tracking.
“At a time of severe financial stringency, I believe it is necessary to direct our resources where they will deliver the greatest benefit.”
Courts and Tribunals Service officials will be available to meet with interested parties at each of the five venues. The consultation in Larne courthouse is on Friday, January 20 at 4pm.
The consultation paper invites comment on six main questions:
What are your views on the closure of hearing centres as a way of making best use of available resources?
Are there any factors which you consider would preclude the closure of any of the hearing centres?
Do you consider that the proposed alternative venue for each hearing centre is the most appropriate for court users?
Is the estimated travel time to each alternative court venue reasonable?
In relation to the proposed amendments to the court calendar, are there any additional considerations that should be taken into account?
If you do not agree with the closure of hearing centres, have you alternative suggestions for saving money?
Copies of the consultation document can be accessed at http://www.courtsni.gov.uk or from mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org or 028 9041 2292.