COURTS Service officials have faced a barrage of criticism at Larne Courthouse over controversial plans to close down the facility.
Over a dozen concerned people, including councillors, lawyers, clergy and community workers turned out to voice their objections to proposals that would see Larne Courthouse shut its doors for good, with all court business being transferred to Ballymena.
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 require “significant future investment” in the region of £3m to bring them up to standard – money the Courts Service “simply does not have”.
And at a public consultation session in Larne, head of court operations Peter Luney told those in attendance: “I realise that closing this court is not necessarily the best option from your point of view, but it is what we are recommending.
“Travel is obviously a big issue, and we have looked to see what public transport links are available. It is a journey time of 50 minutes by bus between Larne and Ballymena, at a cost of £9.30 return, however we realise not everyone lives at the bus station.
“But our research has shown that not everyone who attends this court is from Larne. Recent court lists show that only about half are Larne-based, so not everyone will be disadvantaged by this move to Ballymena. Also, less than five per cent of these people rely on public transport to get to the court.”
Mr Luney said the fate of Larne Courthouse and the other hearing centres had yet to be decided, and invited views on the proposal from those in attendance.
However, chief executive of Larne Council, Geraldine McGahey, believed the closure of the courthouse was already a “done deal”.
“It sounds to me like you have already made your mind up, and I know that many other people feel the same way,” she added.
Mrs McGahey also questioned a number of points raised by the Courts Service in the consultation paper and branded them “misleading”.
“In your consultation document it says quite clearly that Larne Courthouse is not used for tribunal hearings, yet I have checked this and found that one was held here earlier this month.
“Also, you say that it would cost £225,000 to bring the courthouse up to standard in terms of the Disability Discrimination Act. I have an office overlooking the courthouse, so I am well aware of the condition it is in, but that figure seems quite high. I find it hard to imagine how a building like this would attribute such costs and I would like to see how that was worked out,” she added.
Rev Dr Paul Reid, of the Old Presbyterian Church of Larne and Kilwaughter, accused the Courts Service of “taking the whole loaf away” from the people of Larne.
“You took the first half of the loaf away when you downgraded the court to a hearing centre a few years ago, now you are coming back for the other half,” he said.
Local solicitor Terry MacAllister urged court officials to consider the financial impact the move to Ballymena would have on some Larne residents.
“An unemployed 20-year-old gets £53.45 a week in Jobseekers’ Allowance, and you expect them to spend £9.30 – 20 per cent of their weekly income – on a return bus journey to Ballymena to get to court. That doesn’t even include money they may need to get something to eat during the day. Show a wee bit of compassion,” he said.
A representative from Women’s Aid argued that the closure of Larne Courthouse would have a major impact on many local women. “A lot of women in the Larne area are isolated from friends and family and do not have transport of their own, so this move would have serious financial implications for them,” she added.
Larne councillor Roy Beggs said: “There are people who attend a local court to see that justice is being done, and by taking this courthouse away you are denying a proper service for the community. I hope that common sense will prevail and that there will be a recognition that there is a cost to providing a service like this to the community.”
Mrs McGahey echoed the alderman’s comments and said: “A public service is there for the good of local people and it is their entitlement. By taking this courthouse away, you are hampering the community you claim to serve. It was never intended to be 100 per cent cost-effective.”
In response to the Courts Service’s statement about a 50 minutes bus journey to Ballymena, Councillor John Mathews said this failed to account for residents who live outside the town.
“People coming from Ballycarry or other parts of the borough will be forced to get two buses, not one,” he added. “Also, by closing this court you will make the administration of justice more expensive. On bus journeys to the court, we will have the intimidation of witnesses and the Public Prosecution Service will end up losing cases as a result.
“Another important reason for having this courthouse in Larne is that we have a district judge sitting here week in, week out, and his name strikes dread into the some people in the town.”
Jacqui Durkin, head of court operations, asked those in attendance whether they believed the presence of a courthouse in Larne helped to prevent crime in the town, to which Mrs McGahey responded: “The local press are in attendance at Larne Courthouse on a regular basis, but if proceedings are moved to Ballymena they may not always have the time to travel 20 miles up the road to report on what is taking place. This would mean there is less of a deterrent on local criminals, as their cases are less likely to appear in the local newspaper.”
Mr Beggs added: “Larne Courthouse does have a positive influence and may act as a small deterrent.”
Rev Dr Reid asked if the Courts Service had looked into the possibility of bringing extra court sittings from Ballymena to Larne to improve the utilisation rate of the facility. He added that even if Larne Courthouse was closed, it would still incur a cost in terms of upkeep.
Mr Luney replied that it would not be possible to fold Ballymena court sittings into Larne due to the “limitation” of the building. He also acknowledged that the Court Service would still have to pay for the maintenance of the building after it was closed.
One local lawyer suggested that Larne Courthouse would be an ideal location for immigration tribunals to be held, due to the opening of the new detention centre at Larne police station.
Mr Luney said all the comments made at Friday’s meeting would be factored into the Courts Service report, which will be published after the consultation period ends in March.
f Copies of the consultation document can be obtained at www.courtsni.gov.uk or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 028 9041 2292.