TRIBUNALS and family court hearings could be held at council-owned premises in Larne, after the local courthouse closes its doors for good next year.
Justice Minister David Ford announced last Thursday his intention to shut Larne Courthouse and three other hearing centres across the province, in a bid to cut costs in what he described as “a time of severe financial stringency”.
Mr Ford’s decision comes despite a campaign spearheaded by Larne Borough Council to keep the historic Victoria Road courthouse open.
The facility will shut its doors for the last time by April 2013, with business being transferred to Ballymena.
However, there is hope that some court services could be retained in the town, after the local authority offered the NI Courts and Tribunal Service (NICTS) the use of its facilities for non-custodial proceedings, which include family matters and tribunals.
In a statement to the Times, the council said it was “extremely disappointed” with the Minister’s decision.
It added: “The council maintains its position, as communicated to the Minister and his officials during the consultation on this issue, that the rationalisation of the Court Service must adequately balance the need for efficiency savings and the needs of our community to access services at a local level.
“It is particularly regrettable that, despite the council’s pro-active engagement in the consultation process, the Minister did not advise us of his decision prior to his announcement to the media.
“Larne Borough Council remains committed to the retention of court hearing services in Larne and has offered council facilities to the Court Service for the holding of hearings, such as family courts and tribunals. The Minister has undertaken to explore the viability of the council’s proposal and a further meeting to discuss the issue is planned for next month.”
As previously reported in the Times, the NICTS asserted that it would cost £300,000 to bring the local courthouse up to a satisfactory standard – money the Courts Service said it “simply does not have”.
Explaining his decision to close the courthouse, Mr Ford said: “The closure of four of the hearing centres and the transfer of that business to larger court centres will deliver some modest savings but will, in general, afford court users, including victims and witnesses, a higher standard of accommodation and facilities.
“These closures mark a first step towards achieving better utilisation across a more consolidated and better equipped court estate.
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“Larne Borough Council has offered its facilities for hearings, and my officials are going to explore the viability of this proposal.”
East Antrim MLA Stewart Dickson, who sits on the Justice Committee at Stormont, paid tribute to Larne Borough Council’s “determination” to see court services retained in the town and described it as a “very positive move”.
The Alliance man added: “The current Larne Courthouse is outdated, impractical and not compliant with disability regulations. In many cases, solicitors and families have had to have meetings in the holding cell because the facilities are so limited.
“Considering the budget cuts we face and given that the closure of Larne Courthouse has been discussed for some time, it is encouraging that non-custodial services may be retained in Larne Borough Council buildings. This would enable family cases and others to be dealt with locally in modern and more appropriate facilities, such as the Leisure Centre, the newly refurbished Town Hall or Smiley Buildings.
“Larne Borough Council and local solicitors have all to play for and I look forward to the council and the Courts Service agreeing arrangements that meet the needs of local people and solicitors, thereby retaining a range of court services in Larne town,” Mr Dickson concluded.