Chapter Page 1. Introduction 3 2. Background 4 3. Responses to Further Consultation on Lisburn 6 4. Court Structure and Boundaries 14 Annexe A
Illustrative Schedule 16
1. Introduction 1.1 On 29 January 2015 the Northern Ireland Courts & Tribunals Service (NICTS) published a consultation document seeking views on proposals to rationalise the current court estate and close eight court buildings - Consultation on Proposals for the Rationalisation of the Court Estate
1.2 The consultation closed on the 18 May 2015 and NICTS then considered and analysed all of the responses received and the views expressed at 7 public meetings. A response and recommendation paper was published on 26 November 2015 – Summary of Responses and Recommendations on Rationalisation of the Court Estate
1.3 As the recommendation in respect of Lisburn courthouse was a variation on that contained in the original consultation paper those consultees, who had provided a response in regards to the recommendations for Lisburn Courthouse, were invited to submit any further views on this recommendation before a final decision was taken by the Minister.
1.4 This further consultation, which focused on a single issue, issued on the 11 December 2015 and closed on the 1 February 2016 (although responses received up to 3 February were also accepted). The document outlined the basis for the revised position and sought views on the recommendation that Lisburn courthouse should be closed and the business transferred to Laganside Courts.
1.5 There were 16 responses received to this further consultation and many of the issues raised are consistent with those raised in relation to the initial consultation proposal in respect of Lisburn. There was no significantly different or additional points raised and as a result it remained the NICTS recommendation that Lisburn courthouse should close and the business transfer to Laganside Courts.
2. Background 2.1 As we explained in the further consultation document the initial proposal we had consulted on was that Lisburn and Newtownards courthouses should close with family business from both venues transferring to the Old Townhall Building and all remaining civil and criminal business from the venues transferring to Laganside Courts.
2.2 The initial linked proposal for both of these venues relied upon the re-opening of the Old Townhall Building, primarily as a specialist family court centre. As we indicated at the public meetings in March 2015 this was a proposal to be considered as part of the consultation. As such we had not carried out extensive costings prior to the issuing of the consultation document or in advance of the consultation responses.
2.3 However during the response analysis process we explored the costs of establishing a Family Justice Centre in conjunction with the wider DOJ Estate Review. To establish a Family Justice Centre as a bespoke facility that would fully meet the expectations of users the initial costs estimate was in the region of £3.5m.
2.4 The current capital budget allocation for NICTS would not be sufficient to meet this cost and as a result of this we could not recommend the re-opening of the Old Townhall Building as a Family Justice Centre. Given that the future NICTS budget forecasts remain very challenging, we considered that the most viable option at this time was to retain the closure of the Old Townhall Building.
2.5 This consequently impacted on the proposals we had set out for both Newtownards and Lisburn and required us to re-examine the proposals we had previously consulted on. The initial policy development process identified that Laganside Courts could not accommodate the combined business of both Lisburn and Newtownards without the additional capacity that a re-opened Old Townhall Building would provide. It was therefore necessary to develop the revised proposal that Lisburn would close and all business transfer into Laganside Courts.
3. Responses to Further Consultation on Lisburn Consultation Responses
3.1 Some of the responses we received were from respondents to the original consultation on the rationalisation proposals while others were from those who had not previously commented. There were 16 responses received from a range of consultees as below:
3.2 We had invited consultees to consider the following questions and to submit their views to us using the response template provided.
Q1. Do you agree that, on the basis that the Old Townhall Building is to remain closed, Lisburn courthouse should be closed and the business transferred into Laganside Courts?
Q2. What impact (positive or negative) would this have on you? Please give reasons for your answer?
3.3 We received both template and non-template responses, and in relation to the first question all but one of the responses disagreed with the proposal that Lisburn closes and business is transferred to Laganside Courts.
3.4 The PSNI submitted the only supportive response which agreed with the proposal that Lisburn courthouse should be closed and business relocated to Laganside Courts, pointing out that this would have a positive effect by reducing transportation time for overnight remand prisoners resulting in lower associated costs.
3.5 The remainder of the responses received did not agree with the revised proposal. The main concerns raised are summarised below:
Disproportionate impact on families and vulnerable users,
Overcrowding and inadequate facilities at Laganside Courts,
Increase in delay,
Lisburn would be a city without a courthouse,
Loss of footfall and trade to the city,
The view that each council area should have a courthouse,
Loss of local services and additional costs to PSNI, other justice organisations and partner agencies,
The court business volumes reported for Lisburn and Newtownards were inaccurate or misleading.
3.6 NICTS has carefully considered all of the responses we received to this further consultation on the proposal for Lisburn courthouse. Understandably many of the issues reflect the concerns previously raised during the full consultation exercise on the rationalisation of the court estate.
3.7 We do not doubt the strength of feeling on these issues. However, taking into account the responses received to this further consultation, our position in relation to these issues has not changed. The summary of responses and recommendations on the rationalisation of the court estate, which was published in November 2015, clearly sets out the NICTS position in relation to the key themes below;-
3.8 Respondents to this consultation particularly queried if Laganside Courts could accommodate the business transferring from Lisburn and pointed out the pressure this would place on existing accommodation and provision of services. They asked us to look again at the business levels and to confirm that Laganside Courts could accommodate all of the transferring business.
3.9 When developing the original proposals we had scrutinised business levels and current court sitting schedules. In respect of all of our proposals illustrative calendars were prepared to demonstrate the ability of receiving venues to accommodate court business from the potential closing venues. This included indicative calendars for a range of models transferring business from Lisburn and Newtownards into Belfast. The indicative calendars for Belfast were based on the premise of the transfer of current court sittings on a like-for-like basis with no reductions or merging of sittings.
3.10 These calendars are best managed electronically given the number of courtrooms in Laganside Courts, and it was difficult to re-produce these in hard copy in a meaningful way. However in an attempt to allay the concerns that have been raised on the capacity of Laganside we have included the relevant illustrative calendar at Annexe A. The other option calendars can be provided should respondents wish to examine them.
3.11 The illustrative calendar clearly demonstrates that even without the capacity of Old Town Hall there is sufficient capacity to accommodate all of the current business from Lisburn into Laganside Courts. The illustrative calendars also demonstrated that we could not accommodate all of the current business from Newtownards into Laganside Courts without the additional space that the Old Townhall Building could have provided.
3.12 This was not unexpected given the number of sittings of both venues. While the utilisation rates for the venues are similar, the actual number of sittings is vastly different with Newtownards having twice as many court sittings as Lisburn and double the number of court rooms (Lisburn has 2 courtrooms: Newtownards has 4). Therefore Newtownards has the capacity to hold more sittings.
Courtroom Utilisation by Venue 2014
3.13 To give some indication of current business volumes at both locations we included within the further Lisburn consultation document business volumes for both venues based on business received by processing office. This is consistent with previous statistics used to show the year on year reduction of business received across all of the NICTS.
3.14 However a small number of respondents have challenged the figures quoted and suggested they misrepresent the business for civil bill and small claims carried out at Lisburn as the administrative processes for these are carried out at Craigavon rather than Lisburn. They suggested that this deflated the business carried out at Lisburn courthouse.
3.15 The business volumes quoted are accurate however we accept that using the statistics at ‘processing office’ level reflects a lower level of business than that associated with disposal of county court business at Lisburn. We therefore undertook further extraction of statistical information based on the business volumes disposed of by court hearing venue. This is represented in the table below.
Business Disposed Volumes by Court Hearing Venue
3.16 This further information clearly shows that although the civil bill and small claims business disposed at both venues is generally greater than the “business received by processing office” figures it is still correct to say that Lisburn receives and disposes of less business than Newtownards across all of the business areas.
3.17 Respondents queried if Laganside knew the true volume of Lisburn business that would be transferring in. We can confirm that Laganside Management have worked through this in some considerable detail as demonstrated by the illustrative calendars that have been produced. In assessing whether there was capacity for Lisburn business they looked at data on the number of court sittings rather than particular business levels. The calendars developed demonstrated that there was capacity to take on the current number of court sittings which would typically be held at Lisburn.
3.18 It is regrettable that the statistics for county court business in Lisburn outlined in the further consultation document caused concern that business volumes were not adequately represented or considered in terms of capacity in Laganside Courts to manage the transferring business. However the purpose of the original table was to show that Newtownards business is significantly higher than Lisburn and this remains the case when considering either set of figures.
3.19 In addition to the capacity of courtrooms respondents also queried if Laganside Courts has the capacity to accommodate transferring business in terms of likely footfall in the building, office space for staff and judiciary, consulting rooms and ancillary services. NICTS remains confident there is scope to accommodate transferring staff, judiciary and records from Lisburn.
3.20 To address these concerns on footfall we completed a further exercise to identify court user footfall within Laganside Courts and Lisburn courthouse and what impact this may have if the footfall was combined on current scheduled sitting days in Laganside Courts. This work was measured over a two week period in December 2015 at three set times during the court day.
3.21 The results show that during the exercise the highest number of those observed within the waiting areas at Lisburn court was generally between 30 and 60 people. This peaked at the higher end of the scale on those days when two courts were sitting and footfall rapidly declined by early afternoon. The maximum footfall when a single court was sitting was 48. Given this level of footfall we do not consider that this would have a significant impact on the ability of Laganside courts to accommodate the additional business.
3.22 We noted in our response and recommendation document that the Lord Chief Justice had indicated his willingness to work with us to address the possible issues around overcrowding. As listing is a judicial function he has asked the judiciary to consider alternative listing patterns to reduce overcrowding in the mornings and limit the time that witnesses have to wait in court for their cases to be heard.
3.23 We have also taken forward work to up-scale the facilities within Laganside Courts including the work to establish a separate youth court on level 1. This is due to be fully operational by the end of February and will see additional court rooms, consultation rooms, witness waiting areas and separate accommodation for NSPCC and Youth Justice Agency. All of these will help to alleviate pressure on the other facilities on level 2 within Laganside Courts and provide improvements for court users.
3.24 The youth courtroom located on its own floor within Laganside offers a dedicated facility for youth court practitioners including the benefits of better accommodation for public waiting areas and consultation rooms and also good accommodation for vulnerable witnesses. There will also be youth court provision on a more regular basis than at present for those from the Lisburn area e.g. a youth court currently sits three times a week in Laganside Courts and this facility should help to reduce incidents of youth defendants appearing on an overnight charge within adult court lists because no youth court is scheduled.
3.25 It is understandable that many of the respondents referred to the impact that the closure would have on Lisburn city in terms of its status and potential loss to local economy from passing trade.
3.26 NICTS acknowledges that business levels of small businesses could be impacted following closure of a local courthouse and that trade associated with court users on scheduled hearing days may deplete. While this is regrettable for individual local areas it is also the position that the overall economic impact will be negated by the displacement of business across Northern Ireland. NICTS has no plans to reduce the total number of scheduled hearing days therefore it is anticipated that business related activity or trade will transfer to other towns for the benefit of small businesses there.
3.27 There is no requirement for either a city or local government area to have a courthouse. The NICTS remit is to provide an appropriate pattern of courthouses, as far as possible, that have modern facilities, are fit for purpose, that meet the needs of all court users and are within a reasonable travelling distance of all who are required or wish to use them.
3.28 In relation to the impact on the wider justice and partner organisations, the responses to the original consultation from PSNI, Probation, SEHSCT and other agencies confirmed that they were content that the closure proposals where workable for their own organisations.
3.29 PSNI also confirmed that the movement of business would not impact on the delivery of local services. In the response to the Lisburn consultation PSNI pointed out that this would have a positive effect in reduced transportation and lower associated costs.