‘Better ways to save than close Larne courthouse’

LARNE Council has urged the Courts Service to “be more creative” in its attempts to save money, rather than forging ahead with plans to shut the local courthouse.

The Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunal Service consultation paper recommends the closure of the Province’s five hearing centres in Larne, Bangor, Limavady, Magherafelt and Strabane in a bid to save over £400,000 a year in operating costs. It also claims that each of the hearing centres requires “significant future investment” in the region of £3m to bring them up to standard – money the Courts Service “simply does not have”.

Under the plans, all Larne Court business would be transferred to Ballymena.

The local authority has taken a lead role in opposing the proposed closure, and chief executive Geraldine McGahey spoke out vociferously against the plans at a public meeting last month.

And with the consultation period drawing to a close, the council is set to submit its official response to the recommendation.

The Larne Times has seen a copy of the draft response, in which the council encourages NICTS to seek other potential money-saving alternatives.

One suggestion put forward by the council is for more courthouses across the Province to be changed into hearing centres, a move which it feels would “ensure access to justice is available at a local level for a greater number of people”.

It was also suggested that – rather than moving Larne Court sittings to Ballymena – more court business should be transferred to Larne to help increase the local court utilization rate, which NICTS says is currently just 38.4 per cent.

“If the aim of the proposed reforms is to save money, the Larne Courthouse can demonstrate that, at £46,800 per year, it has the lowest running costs of all the current hearing centres.

“Considering these very low running costs, we suggest NICTS consider transferring more business to Larne Courthouse. This could ease pressure and congestion elsewhere in the court system and alleviate some pressure on the court calendar,” the response added.

The council also feels that NICTS should come up with a “more effective way” to increase court utilization, highlighting the local detention centre as a possible solution.

“With the opening of Larne House, a residential short-term holding facility operated by the UK Border Agency, we recommend consideration be given to using Larne Courthouse for hearings or proceedings connected with this facility,” the council added.

The response, which was approved by councillors at the latest meeting of the policy and resources committee, also claims that Larne Courthouse acts as “a deterrent to potential offenders”, and argues that moving court business to Ballymena would “reduce the opportunity for local people to observe proceedings”.

And the council questioned some of the figures put forward by NICTS in the consultation document, including the assertion that it would take £300,000 to bring the courthouse up to a satisfactory standard.

“We question the accuracy of this figure”, the response added. “We would also question the estimated capital expenditure identified in the document to bring the courthouse up to DDA (Disability Discrimination Act) standard (£250,000). We suggest NICTS provide further information on the calculation of this figure and reconsideration should be given to the estimate.”

It is also claimed that moving court sittings to Ballymena will have “significant financial implications” for local users and leave vulnerable people further isolated. NICTS has calculated that transport by bus from Larne to Ballymena will cost £9.30, with a journey time of about 50 minutes.

However, the council argued that for people who don’t live in the town, the travel time will exceed one hour and could mean more than one bus journey.

The consultation period is due to end on Friday, March 2. Copies of the consultation document can be obtained at www.courtsni.gov.uk or by emailing communicationsgroup@courtsni.gov.uk or calling 028 9041 2292.