Four Northern Ireland courthouses set to close by 2014

Larne courthouse Larne courthouse, built in 1903, is one of four court buildings set to close

Four courthouses in Northern Ireland are set to close following a decision by Stormont's justice minister on the future of local court facilities.

David Ford has confirmed that he intends to close courts in Bangor, Larne, Limavady and Magherafelt over the next two years.

He said they were "among the smallest and least well equipped venues within the court estate".

Strabane courthouse was also under consideration but was given a reprieve.

Mr Ford said he was satisfied that the level of accommodation and facilities available at Strabane were of "a higher standard" than the other four and therefore it should be retained.

Bangor and Larne courts will close by April 2013, while the Limavady and Magherafelt closures are expected to be complete by the following year.

'Modest savings'

A public consultation on the future of the five courthouses was held by the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS) in December 2011.

At the time, the NICTS said it was operating in a challenging economic environment and the buildings in question required significant investment.

In a statement on Thursday, the justice minister said: "I have listened carefully to the points made by consultees and I recognise the convenience of having local court facilities."

But he added: "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."

He said it was a "first step towards achieving better utilisation across a more consolidated and better equipped court estate".

Rural population

However, MLAs on Stomont's justice committee have called for the closure plans to be shelved.

They were briefed on the proposals by officials from the Department of Justice (DoJ) and the NICTS on Thursday.

The SDLP's Alban Maginness said he was "not terribly impressed" by the plans.

The North Belfast MLA said the rural population was widely dispersed and said other buildings could be modified for courtroom use.

Mr Maginness, who is also a barrister, said he remembered working in Newtownbreda Petty Sessions when it was held "in Cooke rugby club, in the bar room".

'Premature'

He suggested that the closures be shelved in light of a future general justice estates strategy review covering around 100 buildings.

Jim Wells of the DUP said he thought "the whole thing is a bit premature" while Stewart Dickson of Alliance said he was concerned about the closure of Larne courthouse in his constituency.

Mr Dickson added said that, although he would love to see his local courthouse stay open, it would need an investment of £250,000 for disability access adaptations.

The committee agreed to recommend to the DOJ that the proposed closures should be considered as part of the general review.

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