Thursday, 12 February 2015
Court Accommodation Provision
I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this Commencement Matter which concerns a matter of grave urgency. No town should have to endure the terrifying scenes visited on Portlaoise’s main street on Thursday last. They have led to a local outcry and I have been inundated with hundreds of representations. For many, the incident was the last straw. Up to 60 people were involved in a wholesale chaotic brawl, fisticuffs and dangerous scenes of violence along the town’s main street outside the courthouse.
I raised this matter with the former Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, on numerous occasions in this House. I was told that, in the first instance, there was a question about money and then one about finding a suitable site. In this day and age, the town's main street is not a suitable location for a courthouse operating on a daily basis. All of the smaller courthouses around the county have been closed owing to rationalisation and are now centralised in Portlaoise.
What we had on Thursday last was a fracas which reached a new low, but this is not a new phenomenon. It is a daily occurrence, to the point where the people of Portlaoise, senior citizens, shoppers, others going about their business, students, mothers and parents with buggies, cannot move up and down the main street safely owing to anti-social behaviour by gurriers and gougers who hang around in large groups. It is chaotic and has now reached the point where it is no longer safe to move up and down the main street. It is pointless to talk about the revival of the town centre and business and the relocation the library while the courthouse remains at the heart of the town in the hub of what should be the social and shopping centre. It is no place for a courthouse and I have appealed on numerous occasions to have it relocated.
What happened last week was the last straw. I do not want to exaggerate the dangers. However, what will it take for the courthouse to be relocated? Will somebody have to be seriously injured or worse? Unfortunately, we saw the tragic events that unfolded elsewhere in the country yesterday. We are on the cusp of such a terrible tragedy happening in Portlaoise. The local newspapers have splashed headlines such as, “Mayhem on Main Street”. How can one run a town or a business or go about one’s business in that scenario? The Garda, prison officers and local businesses want the courthouse relocated. Everyone in the community knows the main street in Portlaoise is not a suitable or safe place for a courthouse. For decades, the town was promised a new Garda station. Gardaí in the town are working in substandard conditions, but the solution is in our own hands. The courthouse must be co-located with the new Garda station. The Office of Public Works and the Department of Justice and Equality must expedite this matter as a matter of urgency to ensure the new Garda station is built on a suitable site and co-located with a modern courthouse off the main street.
I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald.
Under the provisions of the Courts Service Act 1998, management of the courts is the responsibility of the Courts Service. Section 4(3) of the 1998 Act provides that the Courts Service is independent in its functions, including in the provision, maintenance and management of court buildings. The Minister had inquiries made about the current arrangements for Portlaoise Courthouse. It should be noted that the courthouse situated on Main Street is a neoclassical building built in 1805. It was last refurbished by the Courts Service in 2001 at a cost of €2.75 million. More recently in 2010, minor works were carried out to relocate staff to the former grand jury room in the building.
The Courts Service does not agree that the courthouse building is unsafe. However, there is limited scope for development within the existing building and site. The location of the courthouse in the centre of the town also poses issues for access and security, as the Senator outlined. It was proposed, therefore, as part of the Courts Service courthouse refurbishment programme, to provide a courthouse on an alternative site. In 2007 the Courts Service, in co-operation with the OPW, began a search to find an appropriate alternative site in the town for a new courthouse development. Several potential sites were considered during 2007 and 2008. However, no site was acquired at the time.
Since 2008 the Courts Service, in common with all other public service organisations, has been operating in a difficult and challenging economic environment. Despite the limited funding available, the Courts Service has continued its search for a new site for a courthouse. The OPW is actively looking for an appropriate site, but, as yet, no suitable sites have become available. In the absence of a suitable site, it is not possible to bring forward specific proposals for the replacement of Portlaoise Courthouse. The availability of a suitable site and funding will dictate the timeline for the provision of a new courthouse. In the meantime, the Courts Service is aware of the ongoing disquiet about the appropriateness of the location of the courthouse in Portlaoise and the cell facilities it contains. The Courts Service works closely with An Garda Síochána and the Irish Prison Service on the best management of court days in the town. In addition, the Courts Service has included the provision of additional holding cell facilities in its programme of works for 2015. Consultation has taken place and the OPW is progressing the matter. This work will impact positively on security and traffic flow around the court, as prisoners will not have to be held elsewhere and transported to and from the court, to the Garda station or prison vans, as cases are called.
Since the establishment of the Courts Service up to 2011, a substantial programme of investment in court facilities amounting to €250 million, with over 50 venues being newly built or refurbished, has been carried out. Many others were substantially upgraded. This level of investment has enabled the Courts Service to greatly improve the standard of accommodation available, including facilities for people with disabilities, jury facilities, custody cells, consultation rooms, etc. There is also an ongoing programme of investment in technology at court venues. In this period 41 court venues were refurbished, 13 new courthouses were built, the Criminal Courts of Justice were completed as a PPP, public private partnership, project, while many smaller venues were upgraded. The Courts Service is procuring seven new courthouses nationwide as part of a €135 million capital PPP programme included in the Government’s infrastructure stimulus package announced in July 2012 in Cork, Limerick, Wexford, Waterford, Mullingar, Letterkenny and Drogheda.
The Courts Service is working with the Department of Justice and Equality, the Office of Public works and the National Development Finance Agency to progress these projects and substantial preparatory work has already been carried out. It is expected that contracts will be signed in October this year with the projects being delivered in 18 to 24 months depending on the project.
I have listened to the Senator's comments in regard to Portlaoise. In the context of the work being carried out by the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Ann Phelan, to regenerate towns and villages across the country, it is important to provide a safe and secure environment for residents and visitors alike. I suggest the Senator should convene a meeting between the local authority, the OPW and the Courts Service with a view to identifying a suitable site in the town. It appears that the location of the site will be key to solving the issue and an intervention from someone as familiar with the town as the Senator could offer a way forward. If there is anything I can do to help, I would be more than happy to oblige. I will be in Portlaoise in the near future and if the Senator wants to show me the problem in person, I would be happy to meet him.
I appreciate the personal interest shown by the Minister of State and his receptive response to the concerns of people of Portlaoise and County Laois. I am heartened that there is agreement in principle that the courthouse is in the wrong place and must be moved. If the main impediment is identifying and securing a suitable site, all stakeholders and interested parties should work towards that end. I hope the investment in new holding cells will not make the new courthouse a more permanent fixture and will instead be an interim arrangement to allow safe and secure passage of vehicles through Main Street. No town should see its citizens and residents fearful of visiting their main street in broad daylight. This has to stop, and the court is the heart of that problem. I welcome that the Department and the Courts Service accept that the courthouse needs to be move and that it will be moved as soon as a suitable site can be found.
All Departments have to operate within certain financial constraints but I am sure the Senator will work hard to remove the obstacles that currently exist. The Government is aware of the value provided by our excellent court system and we continue to provide substantial resources to the Courts Service. I acknowledge that Main Street in Portlaoise is probably not an area in which crowds should be gathering. The incidents he outlined should not be occurring in a vibrant rural town, where people like to go shopping and where new library facilities are being developed. I am more than happy to do anything I can to facilitate the Senator and his local colleagues in identifying a new site.