DEPARTMENT of Justice (DoJ) Minister David Ford’s decsion to shut Larne Courthouse by next April was met with disappointment in the town.
Ulster Unionist deputy mayor Mark McKinty described it as “the wrong decision”, adding: “I would urge the minister to reconsider the recommendation from the justice committee and explore the possibilities with Larne courthouse.
“Larne has lost a disproportionately high number of services over the past number of years and I believe it is not an unreasonable request to keep these facilities open to the public, at least until further investigations have been carried out.”
Expressing concern about people having to travel “considerable distance” to hearings, Cllr McKinty also observed: “The minister stated that Larne, along with the courthouses in Bangor, Limavady and Magherafelt are ‘among the smallest and least well-equipped venues within the court estate’. Whilst I recognise that major work would be required on the Larne courthouse, I feel that this closure - within a matter of months - is the wrong decision, and that not all possible scenarios have been considered.”
UUP Assemblyman Roy Beggs Jnr, who claims to have been the only East Antrim MLA to personally respond to the public consultation document earlier in the year, said the announcement was not a surprise. He relfected: “There have been successive plans to close the courthouse and centralise justice services elsewhere over the years. In the past, however, local representatives – led by the former MP (his father) - had been able to convince the authorities not to go ahead.
“This time the consultation did prove to be merely cosmetic, and I believe the decision to close was taken long ago. Nevertheless, I and my Ulster Unionist Party colleagues, who attended the public meeting in the courthouse in the spring, did at least make the case, and put up a strong fight for retention.”
Mr Beggs asked: “Can others say the same?”
He regretted that closure of the courthouse is “a blow to the civic status of the borough of Larne”, adding: “It is just another example of a loss of a public service to the local area and continues a worrying trend of marginalisation seen in recent years.”
Alliance councillor John Mathews said he had spoken “frankly and at length” with Mr Ford, his party leader, about Larne courthouse.
The former mayor added: “I know he wanted to keep the courthouse open. He did say that Strabane (which has been saved from the axe) had made the best case and the strongest representations. He asked his civil servants to re-examine the figures and he was prepared to have dialogue with Larne Borough Council. I was aware that the council chief executive had conversations with the Jusice Department about the possiblility of some court services, including family hearings, being accommodated in the council offices.”
Cllr Mathews said he hoped that such an arrangement would be agreed between the council and the Justice Department. Otherwise, he added, he would be “desperately disappointed”.