I appreciate this Topical Issue being selected for debate.
I am very concerned at the apparent policy of centralisation of court services being pursued by the Courts Service and its buildings sub-committee. The most recent decision by the board on 1 July will see two further courthouses being closed in County Mayo, in Swinford and Ballyhaunis, bringing to ten the number of courthouses closed in the county since 2000. The administration of these courts and the court sittings are being transferred centrally to the courthouse in Castlebar for the stated reason that there are better facilities in Castlebar courthouse and there is a holding cell there. If these are the criteria - I understand there are several other items which I will address - all District Courts and all courthouses in County Mayo will shut down and all of the work will be transferred to Castlebar where the investment has been made in the courthouse.
What is the State saving? In Ballyhaunis and Swinford there are 24 hour Garda stations, but now gardaí will be required to travel a distance to Castlebar and spend their time, a day perhaps, sitting around the District Court and will then have to travel some distance back to their towns. They will not be able to attend to their policing duties as easily or readily as if they were attending the District Court in their own towns as they have been doing to date. What is being saved in the way of resources and policing hours when one considers that gardaí will have to travel? That is not to mention, first and foremost, the question of accessibility to District Courts and courthouses in the county. As in many other counties and District Court areas that serve large dispersed rural populations, public transport is a major problem in County Mayo. It is all very well to have a court case running, but if one does not have a car and cannot get into court, or meet one's legal representative beforehand, one is in difficulties. This is a very real and serious issue which is often not appreciated in bigger urban centres where public transport is more readily accessible.
What consultation is ongoing? I have no doubt that some consultation has taken place and the reasons have been given for preferring Castlebar. Why are the administration of Swinford District Court and the court sittings being moved to Castlebar? This work is being done in Ballina District Court office. This office holds all of the liquor licensing files and all other files pertaining to the operation of Swinford District Court. I have spoken to stakeholders there, including local gardaí, solicitors practising in the District Court and other interested parties, including representatives of the Mayo Solicitors Bar Association. The general feeling is that there is already a very good working relationship between the District Court staff in Ballina and the Swinford area and as they are already doing this work. Why centralise it in Castlebar, unless to undermine the Ballina District Court office and in pursuit of a centralisation policy?
I know that the Courts Service will claim that it looks into issues of public transport, but I cannot believe that is a very real and urgent consideration for it, given the number of rural courthouses it closes down. In this case I am aware that there are considerably more Bus Éireann services - the public transport services available - between Ballina and Swinford because they are on the same N26 national primary Ballina-Dublin route than there are between Swinford and Castlebar. Equally, the new administrative and local authority area sees Swinford being included with Ballina, while much of the Garda district area in Swinford is also being subsumed into the Ballina district. This does not make sense on any score.
In respect of the holding cell, mentioned in connection with Castlebar, there is a state-of-the-art Garda station just around the corner, where all prisoners and people required to be detained in custody can be satisfactorily held. One of the fundamental tenets of the District Court and the way it operates is that it should be accessible to the people of an area and administered locally.