Senator Mark Daly: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. The Courts Service has decided to close the courthouses in Kenmare, Cahersiveen, Killorglin and Dingle and has claimed it is a cost-saving measure. I am afraid the service has not carried out a comprehensive analysis of the cost to the State of this move. It has not considered how much it will cost the State in man-hours given that gardaí who normally give evidence in Kenmare, Cahersiveen, Killorglin or Dingle will now need to travel to Killarney and will have to wait there for their case to be heard. Witnesses, including expert witnesses such as medical practitioners and others, will need to make the same journey. The Courts Service has not carried out any effective impact assessment – it has just considered the cost of the court buildings. It has not considered the cost to the State of all these witnesses and gardaí giving evidence in a centralised location, in this case Killarney.
The increased cost on citizens in south Kerry who will now have to travel has not been considered. The 2006 Crowley report showed that 12% of the population in south Kerry do not have a vehicle. In order to get justice those people would need to travel to Killarney. Given the economic downturn since then, one can imagine that figure has not improved. They would need to get a bus to Killarney and bus timetables do not always coincide with court sittings, particularly for return journeys if the court sitting continued until late in the afternoon.
Access to justice is a fundamental right laid down in the Constitution. Up to now the most vulnerable, including those seeking barring orders and the elderly were able access justice locally but will no longer be able to do so as a result of this bizarre move. I say it is bizarre because one would have thought the Department would have done a comprehensive review to determine the number of garda hours that will be taken up in travelling. Going from Dingle to Killarney or Tralee and back takes two hours alone and the same applies in the case of Cahersiveen. What is the cost for the State to pay for gardaí to travel by squad car over to Killarney for court hearings? What are the costs for the witnesses and citizens? I ask the Minister to reconsider the issue. What is proposed is centralisation, something of which he is aware given what has happened with Garda stations in his constituency. Justice is being removed from the people at a local level and being transferred to the centre, meaning not only will the State be at a financial loss but the citizens will also be at a loss because access to justice is being put beyond their reach.
Deputy Sean Sherlock: I preface my remarks by saying that I know my good neighbours in Kerry to be a neighbourly and affable bunch. One would never be stuck for a lift to any part of the county at any given time of the day or night.
Senator Mark Daly: If I ever need a lift, I will make sure to give the Minister of State a call.
Deputy Sean Sherlock: The Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence, Deputy Shatter, is unable to be here today and has asked me to convey his thanks to the Senator for raising the matter. As the Senator may be aware, under the provisions of the Courts Service Act 1998, management of the courts is the responsibility of the Courts Service. The 1998 Act provides that the Courts Service is independent in the performance of its functions, which, of course, include the provision, maintenance and management of court buildings. Decisions about court venues are entirely a matter for the Courts Service board and the Minister has no role in the decision.
In the current financial climate, the service has been obliged to review all aspects of its organisational and operational structures throughout the country with the specific objective of ensuring that it can continue to maintain the delivery of front-line court services and an appropriate level of service to court users. The Minister has been informed that no court venue has been singled out or indeed exempted from the review process.
A comprehensive review of all venues throughout the country has recently been completed, the purpose of which was to establish a general framework within which venues could be considered for closure taking into account a range of criteria such as caseload, proximity to an alternative venue, physical condition of the building, availability of holding cell facilities, etc. The likely impact on other justice agencies, such as An Garda Síochána and the Irish Prison Service, was also taken into account. The Minister is informed that the review identified a range of venues nationwide, which, based on the criteria applied, could be considered for closure subject to a detailed assessment and the preparation of a business case in respect of each identified venue.
Since its establishment in 1999, the Courts Service has amalgamated nearly 160 venues while, at the same time, the service has benefited from a very substantial capital investment to upgrade court accommodation around the country. The policy has been very successful, resulting in a more efficient use of time for the Judiciary, court users and gardaí. Rather than short sittings in the smaller venues, a full day’s list can be dealt with which leads to reductions in delays in the District Court.
The Senator has inquired, in particular, about courthouses in County Kerry. The Courts Service has informed me that Kenmare, Cahersiveen, Killorglin and Dingle have been identified as venues to be considered for closure subject to a detailed assessment and the preparation of a business case as mentioned earlier. Standard courthouse requirements include basic facilities such as consultation rooms, victim support facilities and holding cells for prisoners which are essential to ensure public safety and efficient use of Irish Prison Service resources.
The Senator should note that the service has advised that the identification of venues as part of the review process does not necessarily mean that the identified venues will close, as each identified venue will be subject to a rigorous examination. The Courts Service board will take no decision on the future of Kenmare, Cahersiveen, Killorglin and Dingle as District Court venues without full prior consultation with local interested parties and court users. The Minister has been advised that the consultation on the identified venues is under way. Submissions were sought from a range of local interests and the closing date for receipt of submissions was 25 September 2013. The Courts Service has indicated that it has met local interested parties and the service has assured the Minister that the views expressed in the consultation process will be taken into account in the decision-making process. As I already mentioned, the final decision on the closure of any venue is a matter for the board of the Courts Service.
I thank the Senator for raising the matter and I appreciate his interest in the administration of justice in County Kerry. I know the Senator will understand the need for the Courts Service to take the necessary measures to promote greater efficiency in the courts, and I hope the constructive engagement involving the Courts Service will result in reasoned and appropriate decisions being made on the venues concerned.