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.