Wednesday, 8 November 2023
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
The Minister of State is very welcome. I realise this is not his Department so I appreciate his taking the time to come and answer this on behalf of the Minister for Justice. My Commencement concerns the long-awaited family law court complex at Hammond Lane. We are long past needing a new family law court complex for Dublin. Dolphin House and Phoenix House are not fit for purpose. The court users are vulnerable people, including people who have suffered domestic violence and children who are entering the State's care and they are being dealt with in completely inadequate facilities. Not only is it inadequate for the court users, it is inadequate for the practitioners and for the judges. It is a very unsafe working environment. We have seen unfortunately, a number of instances in these courts down through the years. The State purchased the site at Hammond Lane in the late 1990s and we are still waiting for the family law court complex there. It was put into the programme for Government that it would be delivered within the lifetime of the Government. I was happy to see that because, since my election to the Seanad, I have been advocating for this, because I was a family law practitioner prior to entering politics and worked in that area every day.
Unfortunately, in August this year, The Irish Times reported that construction was not due to start until 2026 at the earliest and no opening date was set. This was completely baffling because, in 2021, the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, said it would be completed by 2026 at the latest. In June 2022, a preliminary business case was approved by the Government with the project to be delivered as part of a public-private partnership bundled to include Garda stations in Clonmel and Macroom. That was a welcome step forward. I put down a Commencement matter in October 2022, just over a year ago, and the Minister, Deputy McEntee told me the project was proceeding as expected with no delays envisaged. That was good news. However, in May 2023, it was announced that Clonmel and Macroom Garda stations would be decoupled from the Hammond Lane project and would proceed. Nothing was said about the progress of the Hammond Lane site. Clearly, problems were identified at this point.
What happened between my Commencement in October 2022 and May 2023 that dramatically altered the timeline? It was a short period of time. Something dramatic happened. We still do not know. Why did the Minister not see fit to give any explanation to the Government, the Dáil or the Seanad in May 2023 to explain why this decoupling was happening? We received confirmation or a quasi-confirmation in August 2023 that the Hammond Lane project would be dramatically set back. That news was sneaked out when these Houses were in recess. There was an unofficial report in The Irish Times with no direct quotes from the Minister. We still have no information on it. There has just been radio silence, with not a dicky bird from the Minister, about this. There can be every strategy under the sun to tackle the really important issues of gender-based violence, domestic violence, children in the care of the State, maintenance, access, custody and guardianship. We can say we are going to do everything on these, but if the important infrastructure is not delivered for the people of Dublin, strategies mean nothing. They are pointless statements. I am genuinely upset and frustrated with the Minister for Justice on this because there has been no explanation. I often think that because these proceedings are in camera,nobody really knows what goes on. They do not care what goes on. We are talking about extremely vulnerable families here. I hope the Minister of State can give me some insight as to what happened to the timelines.Hopefully, the people of Dublin will get some answer as to why this important piece of infrastructure has once again been tossed to the side.
I thank the Senator for raising this question. I am here on behalf of the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, who regrets that she cannot be present due to another commitment. I know she wants to provide some clarity on these issues.
Construction of a purpose-built family law court complex at Hammond Lane is a key project in the national development plan, NDP. The Hammond Lane complex will be built with the specific needs of family law users in mind and will provide a modern facility where family law cases can be held in a dignified, secure and non-threatening environment with a range of support services at hand. It will replace the present inadequate and fragmented facilities for family law in central Dublin at Dolphin House, Chancery Street, Phoenix House and in the Four Courts.
A preliminary business case, developed in compliance with the requirements of the public spending code, was approved in principle in June 2022. The original intention was that Hammond Lane would be delivered as part of a bundle of public private partnership, PPP, projects, including the two Garda stations the Senator mentioned. However, it was decided earlier this year that the two Garda projects would be decoupled from the PPP projects and would proceed by traditional direct Exchequer funding. Accordingly, Hammond Lane is now proceeding as a stand-alone PPP project with appropriate governance arrangements having been revised in that context.
Detailed plans and layouts for the Hammond Lane building have been prepared by the OPW. They provide for a five-storey over-basement building, comprising 19 courtrooms, consultation rooms or spaces, staff and judicial accommodation, a variety of public waiting areas, space for mediation and domestic violence support services, accommodation for legal practitioners and custody facilities. The Courts Service undertook an extensive consultation exercise with stakeholders during the fourth quarter of 2022, during which the plans were very positively received.
The submission of the Part 9 planning application is the immediate priority for the Hammond Lane project, work on which is being undertaken on behalf of the Courts Service by the OPW and which will be completed in advance of the tendering process. It is envisaged that an application for planning permission will be lodged in the coming weeks. In parallel to the Part 9 planning process, a procurement process for legal and technical advisors is under way. The procurement and construction stages of the project will be undertaken and managed by the National Development Finance Agency, NDFA, and, in line with Government PPP procedures, it is anticipated that this key project will be delivered in the latter half of the current NDP.
The Minister for Justice is currently leading an ambitious programme of family justice reform. In November of last year she published the first family justice strategy. While foundational in nature, it recognises that much needs to be done to deliver a modern effective system. The strategy sets out a vision for a co-ordinated, consistent and user-focused family justice system, which helps children and families obtain earlier, appropriate resolutions in a simpler, fairer and more effective way. We intend to work towards this through the implementation of over 50 actions across nine goals, with timescales up to the end of 2025 and progress updates published annually.
I am left feeling a bit cold after that answer, to be honest. It is not the Minister of State's fault - I know it is not his Department - but there was absolutely nothing in that that we did not know. I want to know why the projects were decoupled. When was that decision made? We all know the two Garda stations were decoupled. Why was that done? Why did the Minister say in October 2022 that the projects were proceeding as normal and then a couple of months later, they were decoupled because there was a big issue going on with the Hammond Lane project? I find it hard to believe that the Department did not have sight of the issue in question in October 2022. Then this was announced in August of this year. Why did the Minister not see fit to make any public statement on it? Are the users of the family law courts that unimportant to the Minister?
When will the complex be opened? The Minister of State said it would be in the latter half of the NDP. When is that exactly? We do not know that. He spoke about various strategies being user focused. As already stated, you can have every strategy under the sun but if the court complex is so bad that users do not go ahead with their applications because they cannot actually face going down to that court due to the state the building, it does not matter.
I just want to make a very brief point. The local community in the north inner city of Dublin is one of the most deprived communities in Ireland and they have been living with this huge hole in the ground. Can the Minister of State imagine what that is like for the children growing up in the flats around the area, namely, Greek Street flats or one of the other flat complexes? They are going to school every day and seeing this official neglect, this massive hole in the ground with dirt and rubbish building up in it. For their whole lives, that is all they have seen with this State not proceeding with anything on that site. What does that tell the people of the local community in the north inner city?
The Senator's first question was why the projects were decoupled earlier this year. I do not know the answer to that. I will ask the Minister to get the Senator an answer. I do not have specific information on that. The Senator generally felt that there was no information provided. Maybe she was already aware that the OPW is about to make its planning application in the coming weeks under Part 9, which is significant, and that it has already started the procurement process for its legal and technical services. That is already under way. The Senator asked when it is going to be open and she asked about the phrase "the second half of the NDP". The NDP runs for the decade from 2021 to 2030 so the second half is after 2025. Between 2025 and 2030 is the second half.
The second half of a decade is five years. That is the information I have available. I am happy to revert to the Minister if the Senator wants to ask further questions or look for further clarifications from her. That is the information I have.