I am glad to have an opportunity to raise this important issue pertaining to the necessity of securing appropriate alternative facilities to enable District Court sittings to continue in Mullingar when the existing facilities are temporarily closed for upgrading, renovation and refurbishment. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this issue, which allows me to ventilate the concerns of all persons - users, practitioners, Garda personnel and business owners - who will be affected by a failure to secure in a timely fashion the requisite accommodation in Mullingar. This is particularly the case given significant accommodation is available in and around Mullingar which only needs to be examined and accredited.
I have been actively pursuing for a number of years the urgent necessity to refurbish and extend the current facilities at the courthouse in Mullingar to bring it up to the standard of modern courthouse that is now available in towns such as Longford and Tullamore. We just want parity in Mullingar by ensuring proper facilities are provided, including ancillary facilities in regard to family law, children in court and so on. I am glad to see this was incorporated as part of the Government's infrastructure stimulus package, which will be delivered by way of public private partnership. Construction work will likely commence next year and will take at least 18 to 24 months, meaning that alternative accommodation to enable the District Court sit in Mullingar will be needed for at least two years.
I appreciate the Courts Service is charged with responsibility in this area, so I am pre-empting what the Minister of State is going to tell me, namely, the Courts Service has responsibility. I am aware of that and know it is its job to seek out the alternative accommodation.
There are a number of buildings which would be available on weekdays and which would be eminently suitable for this important function and, indeed, would be secure, given there must be an adequate and appropriate level of security for judges and other persons. There have been unconfirmed rumours that the District Court sitting in Mullingar might have to relocate to Longford to sit in the courthouse there. This might seem to be a financially attractive option from the perspective of the OPW, given it is the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, who is present rather than the Minister for Justice and Equality. However, it would be far from suitable in terms of the Minister's budget when all of the additional costs and expenses associated with such a proposal are factored in, and I hope it is not even contemplated. It would mean up to 12 gardaí having to leave Mullingar seven days each month for seven scheduled sittings to deal with prosecution issues. From a practical perspective, where the accused person does not turn up and warrants have to be issued and executed, this means gardaí would have to embark on a trip back to Mullingar or the particular geographical area where the accused resides.
This would add a significant further cost and is far from convenient when compared with the situation if the court continues to sit at an alternative venue in Mullingar. While it is not ideal for the legal practitioners, they will nevertheless fulfil their primary duty to their clients. However, where legal aid is involved, this would lead to an increased cost for the client in terms of travel and so on, which has to be incurred by the legal practitioners. In addition, all of the relevant Courts Service officials, who are essential for the smooth and effective administration of the court, will also have to relocate for each sitting day - at least seven a month - and also for special court sittings and out-of-hours sittings, all contributing to additional costs, which can be avoided in the context of getting alternative suitable accommodation in Mullingar.
Of course, the public would be greatly inconvenienced and discommoded. It is at least an additional 40 minute journey from Longford to Mullingar. Many people do not have transport and 70% of the people involved in the District Court in Mullingar can access it quite readily; many can walk to court. The distance to Longford courthouse from Mullingar is up to 45 km, so it would be a significant disruption for the people who use it.
There are alternative venues. When Tullamore courthouse was being refurbished, I recall the sittings taking place in the GAA pavilion, which was an excellent facility. There are a number of such facilities in the Mullingar area which are of high quality and which could be examined. They comply with all the required safety features I have suggested. As was suggested previously, Columb Barracks in Mullingar, which is very close to my heart and for which I fought my own battle, is a huge facility which is in the ownership of the State and located in a very secure setting.