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17 Apr 2002 : Column 216WH

Larne Magistrates Court

12.30 pm

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise the issue of the future of Larne magistrates court and to comment on the Northern Ireland Court Service's consultation document, "Court Accommodation in Northern Ireland 2001-2010". I wish to focus on the need to retain the Larne courthouse, which, among others that I cannot speak about from personal experience, is under consideration for closure.

I first want to record my appreciation of the willingness of the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor' s Department, the hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton) in accepting my invitation to visit Larne courthouse. The interest she showed when she met the mayor of Larne, Councillor Fleck, chief executive Colm McGarry and the courthouse staff who provided a conducted tour and answered her probing questions was much appreciated. The consultation document has succeeded in stimulating discussion and public debate on court accommodation in Northern Ireland. The aims listed in paragraph 1.3 of the consultation document will have broad support. The Northern Ireland Court Service should plan to provide high-quality court accommodation in Northern Ireland; it should give the public value for money in the overall cost of building and refurbishment programmes; it should use resources sensibly; it should improve the quality of facilities for everyone who uses the courts and ensure that courthouses are reasonably accessible.

I am concerned that the burden of expense that would transfer to the least well off clients served by Larne courthouse could not be justified by a caring Government who claim to defend those least able to defend themselves in society. I challenge the assertion that facilities at Larne courthouse are poor and that there is little room for improvement. The special needs of children, families and the disabled within the justice system can be best served only by retention of Larne courthouse. It has the essential facilities to meet local needs and other desirable facilities could be added at modest expense.

I have served as an elected councillor in Larne, in the buildings opposite and adjacent to Larne courthouse, since 1973. I have never had a single complaint about the courthouse facilities. However, I cannot say the same about the medicine prescribed by the resident magistrates for those found guilty in court. Solicitors and barristers who use Larne courthouse regularly do not consider the current facilities to be sub-standard. When I contacted local legal practices for opinions on the consultation document, I received supportive replies. O'Rourke, McDonald and Tweed solicitors told me:

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A representative of Johnston and Courtney solicitors agreed with that statement, as did McAllister, Keenan and Co. solicitors, whose experience of Larne courthouse is definite. McAllister, Keenan and Co. told me:

However, their next observation is significant:

Although Larne is not a modern courthouse, the facilities are more than adequate for members of the public and professionals alike. The question has been asked locally whether the Northern Ireland Court Service is writing off Larne as not important enough to have its own courthouse. Life-long residents, runners into Larne like myself who have worked in the borough for more than 40 years, and the borough council, which represents the whole community, feel strongly that it is a matter of civic pride that Larne should retain its courthouse. The borough's population is increasing and continued growth is predicted.

At present, the courthouse handles a wide range of work daily and the staff provide a friendly service to all who have business to transact. Due to the geography of the borough, people who live outside the town already have to travel many miles, from Carnlough and Glenarm in the north of the borough and Islandmagee in the south, to attend Larne courthouse. There is a matrimonial court, a criminal court, a family proceedings court, a small claims court and a juvenile court, which all provide accessible local justice and other services.

Approximately 560 people per month use Larne courthouse, and the proposed closure and transfer to Antrim would cause immeasurable hardship, distress and inconvenience. Clients and professionals would be required to travel a further 20 miles, and there is no direct train or bus service. To get to Antrim for a 10 am sitting would mean catching the 6.53 am train from Larne to Belfast central station in order to catch the 8.5 am connecting train to Antrim, arriving there at 9.4 am. People living outside Larne town would be unreasonably inconvenienced and could be travelling from 6 am to get to Antrim for 10 am. The cost of a return ticket, at £11, would be like another small fine.

Bus travel would involve some risk of being late for a 10 am court sitting in Antrim. It would mean an early 7.35 am start from Larne to Belfast and then taking the 8.45 am connecting bus from Belfast to Antrim. A return ticket costs £10, with £3 for a taxi between the station and the courthouse, while a single taxi fare from Larne to Antrim costs £20.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): My hon. Friend's point about the poor quality of public transport and the impact of the proposals on people who do not have access to cars—many people who are involved in the court proceedings do not have such access—relates to

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my concern about Banbridge magistrates court. In drawing up the proposals, the court service does not seem to have taken proper account of the transport difficulties, which is partly why we in Banbridge are concerned that our courthouse is retained as well.

Mr. Beggs : As I pointed out, I personally know the details of how my constituents will be affected in Larne, and as my right hon. Friend noted, there will be comparable situations in other areas, including Banbridge. The proposals would adversely affect specific areas in Northern Ireland, and we want those matters to be considered further.

Most people who pay fines do not have bank accounts or chequebooks, and there could be major defaulting on payment of fines if the court moved to Antrim. That would put extra pressure on Antrim court, as warrants would have to be issued. Regrettably, police time would be wasted in serving them at a time when there is an acute shortage of police in most police stations.

Maintenance is paid into and out of Larne court to estranged wives and children, and is an important service. That money provides part of an essential weekly income and any disruption to regular payments into and out of the court would cause hardship.

Finally, press reporting in local papers of court sentences for crimes committed against society names and shames offenders, and in a small way may deter others from criminal activity. Readers of Larne newspapers do not purchase Antrim newspapers, so local accountability as a result of local reports of the workings of the criminal justice system would be lost. If our Government and the Northern Ireland Court Service care for clients who use court services in Larne and elsewhere, I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to convince those of us who also care by withdrawing the proposal to close Larne courthouse.

I also ask the Parliamentary Secretary to consider how more desirable, although not essential, facilities can be installed at a reasonable cost to the public in the existing courthouses in Larne and Banbridge.

12.42 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Ms Rosie Winterton) : I congratulate the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) on securing the debate. He has campaigned vigorously on the issue on behalf of his constituents. I thank him for his kind remarks about my visit to Larne, which I will talk about later in greater detail. I listened carefully to all the points that he made so eloquently, but I will start by outlining some of the background to the changes that are proposed in our consultation document.

As hon. Members know, the Northern Ireland Court Service's accommodation strategy for 2001 to 2010 was issued for public consultation on 7 December 2001. The consultation document was circulated to an extensive range of court users including staff, the judiciary, the legal profession—the hon. Gentleman made several comments about the response that he received from local members of the profession—interested parties such as MPs and Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and local councils.

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Copies of the document were also sent to a wide range of groups outlined in the Northern Ireland Court Service's equality scheme, such as victim support groups and citizens advice bureaux. The document is the result of an internal review by the Northern Ireland Court Service and outlines a strategy to improve the overall quality of court accommodation for court users.

I should like to reiterate the important principles that guided the review. We believe strongly that all court buildings should be high quality and meet modern requirements, in line with health and safety, fire, energy conservation and environmental regulations. Cases should be shared out as evenly as possible between each court division. Services to court users should be efficient and high quality and we should make the best possible use of existing facilities. Court buildings should be easily accessible for disabled people and meet the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Child witnesses and victims of crime should have modern specialist waiting facilities and trials involving children charged with serious offences need to be held in surroundings consistent with the principles set out by the European Court of Human Rights. Maximum advantage should be taken from advances in modern information technology and courts should be located, wherever possible, within reasonable travelling distance of users.

The strategy details the future of court accommodation in Northern Ireland and proposes the closure of a number of courthouses that currently have inadequate facilities. That means the subsequent transfer of business to other more suitable and better-equipped venues. The venues identified as having inadequate facilities are Larne, Banbridge, Limavady, Cookstown, Clogher and Kilkeel. Business will be transferred elsewhere; in the case of Larne courthouse, the business will transfer to Antrim, a newer and in many ways better appointed building.

The consultation period closed on 29 March. I have visited four of the venues proposed for closure; Larne, Banbridge, Limavady and Cookstown. I have viewed the alternative facilities to which the business is proposed for transfer; Antrim, Newry and Londonderry. I have also seen the new courthouse at Dungannon and I plan to visit Clogher and Kilkeel shortly. It is important to see all the courthouses myself to gain a first-hand knowledge of the facilities.

As the hon. Member for East Antrim mentioned, I visited Larne courthouse on 22 January and met the mayor of Larne council, David Fleck, and the chief executive of Larne borough council, Colm McGarry. I much appreciated the warm welcome and the frank discussions that took place then. On the same day I visited Banbridge courthouse where I met the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) whose intervention highlighted the travelling difficulties likely to result from the closure of the courthouse. I am aware that the right hon. Gentleman has taken every available opportunity to press the case for the retention of the Banbridge courthouse. The detailed plans that he has provided have been most helpful, but I hope that he will take advantage of my officials' offer to meet the architect and discuss his plans.

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My officials have also arranged a series of meetings with members of local councils to discuss our proposals in order that I have as much local feedback as possible. I want the consultation process to be open and transparent so that we have as much information as possible before we take a decision.

The Government are committed to providing a high standard of court accommodation in Northern Ireland, as I hope we have proved by the significant investment to improve the court estate; about £63.8 million in the last 11 years. The new Laganside court in Belfast, which was constructed under a public-private partnership arrangement, represents a capital investment of £22.4 million. We have made future provision for capital expenditure of £20 million for the period to 2006. I hope that that reassures hon. Members that there is a commitment to ensuring a high standard of court accommodation.

The public consultation period produced more than 50 responses, eight in relation to Larne courthouse. My officials in the Northern Ireland Court Service are at present undertaking a detailed analysis of those responses. During the consultation period, an independent survey of court users was undertaken by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, at Larne, Banbridge, Cookstown and Limavady courthouses. The results of that survey will be the subject of detailed analysis. Initial results suggest that although there is a high level of satisfaction among persons using Larne courthouse, people who were probed about specific issues such as waiting areas acknowledged that the accommodation provided was less than satisfactory. I have asked for an equality impact assessment to be undertaken in respect of each of the courthouses concerned under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. That will include outreach work where necessary. I expect the results of these assessments by the end of April.

Larne courthouse is used for magistrates courts business and occasional county court and small claims business before the district judge. Court statistics show that the work load at Larne is, at present, diminishing. Magistrates courts sittings totalled 87 in 2001, a reduction of 29 when compared with the figure for 2000. Between 2000 and 2001, there was a 22 per cent. reduction in the number of adult defendants dealt with. County court business was minimal, with only seven sittings in 2001.

The administrative office at Larne courthouse is located on the upper floor and accessed by an internal staircase. There is at present no lift for disabled access. However, when I visited the courthouse, despite the difficult working conditions, I noticed the dedication and enthusiasm of the court staff. We should take every opportunity to praise the staff, not least for their cheerfulness, and I hope that my words will be passed on to them.

In approaching any proposed courthouse closure, I have to bear in mind that all users of court buildings deserve an efficient service that is delivered in well-equipped and secure buildings. The venues under consideration for possible closure have been identified as lacking necessary facilities, such as secure prisoner accommodation and separate waiting areas for victims and witnesses.

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Lady Hermon (North Down): The Parliamentary Secretary will know from the court accommodation strategy document that it was proposed that Bangor courthouse in my constituency should close. Will she confirm that it is now not listed for closure and explain to my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) why Larne cannot gain a reprieve as well?

Ms Winterton : We gave a strong commitment that Bangor courthouse would close only when we had built a new courthouse to replace those of both Bangor and Newtownards. I hope that that answers the hon. Lady's question. If I can give her further information, I will write to her, as I am conscious of the time.

It is important to have basic accommodation standards. Court users can reasonably expect that in the 21st century. However, I note all the comments made by the hon. Member for East Antrim—particularly about travelling difficulties—and by local solicitors. We have to balance the need for accommodation improvements against factors such as the availability of local transport and accessibility. The hon. Gentleman set out in great detail some of the difficulties that would be encountered. I will certainly pay close regard to those very relevant considerations before reaching any final decision on the future of the courthouse.

I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. I know that this is an important issue and I emphasise again the importance that I place on full and effective public consultation. As I said, the results of the consultation exercise are being analysed, as the results of the court user survey and equality impact assessments will be. I shall not rush to judgment, because I want to balance all the points that have been made, including in today's debate. There is no doubt that some points will be conflicting. When reaching a conclusion, we will have to balance all views, but I hope that it will be possible to make a decision before the summer recess.

I again congratulate the hon. Member for East Antrim on securing the debate and on the hard work that he and the right hon. Member for Upper Bann have put into representing their constituents and ensuring that I am aware of those considerations. I am also grateful for the warm welcome that I received when I visited Northern Ireland. As I said, I will certainly write to the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) if I have anything to add about Bangor courthouse. I hope that that provides some reassurance that we are considering this issue carefully and that we will take into account all representations that have been made by Members of Parliament.

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