Thursday, 22 October 2020

Questions (12)

Pa Daly

Question:

12. Deputy Pa Daly asked the Minister for Justice the physical renovations being made to existing courthouses and Garda stations to prevent the spread of Covid-19; and if Tralee courthouse will be one of those allocated funds to do so. [30963/20]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Justice)

Cén obair atá á dhéanamh ag an nGarda Síochána agus ag an tSeirbhís Chúirteanna chun Covid-19 a ísliú?

Will Tralee courthouse, which has barely had a lick of a paint since a half-hearted renovation in the early 1980s, be included in that?

A record €3 billion was secured for the justice sector in last week’s budget 2021. This will fund key changes across the entire Justice sector including dealing with Covid. It will build on the July stimulus package for these purposes. The Minister is also in advanced discussions with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to secure additional funding for the remainder of 2020, including on further Covid related expenditure.

The €3 billion includes €27 million for Covid-related measures, including €13 million for PPE for An Garda Síochána. An additional €5.7 million has been made available in 2021 for the Courts Service including for additional premises in Dublin and regional locations to enable court sittings to take place in a socially distanced and safe environment. Some €8 million was also secured for year 1 of the Courts Service modernisation programme which will support increased use of technology and remote hearings. This funding will be allocated based on priority needs assessed by the Courts Service.

I am informed the Courts Service established a Covid response management team to ensure implementation of the Covid return to work safely protocols issued in May 2020. A Courts Service Covid-19 safety management programme was also developed. Actions which are included in that programme include template risk assessment processes, training, standard signage operating guidelines and other supporting protocols. Safety measures to be considered as part of risk assessment of venues include review of access, egress and requirements for screens. No substantial building works have been required to date in any courthouse, including Tralee, apart from the implementation of screens for courtrooms and public counters.

The Courts Service has examined the facilities in Tralee and has found that under the current 2 m social distancing requirements, the jury courtroom in Tralee cannot accommodate the required numbers of persons to run a Circuit Criminal Court trial. Venues where Circuit Criminal Court trials cannot be run, such as Tralee, will nonetheless be used to transact civil and family law business as well as criminal business for the District Court in the interim.

Several options for the provision of improved courthouse accommodation for Tralee remain under consideration to enable the Courts Service to meet its obligations to deliver a full range of court services in state-of-the-art facilities, for the benefit of the people of Kerry.

In response to the previous question, the Minister informed us of a downward trajectory in criminal cases which does not suit some people. Notwithstanding the downward trajectory, there have been delays in the hearing of cases and there is a backlog.

The programme for Government has a commitment to town centres. Most of the old courthouses are in town centres. The centralisation of court hearings to larger cities and towns will result in the loss of income to small provincial towns. Due to Covid, there has been a further move towards centralisation to larger cities. That means a loss of gardaí to a county and witnesses having to travel.

If one takes Tralee courthouse, the members of the Bar and the solicitors there are prepared to be flexible if they can keep cases there. There is not even a video link, however, in Tralee courthouse. If there is a sexual abuse or assault case involving a minor, all witnesses and gardaí involved have to travel to Cork and Limerick to ensure the case can be heard. Surely a small step like that can be taken.

These matters are kept under review. I acknowledge a backlog was built up during the initial Covid period. Maintaining access to justice and the courts system has been a key priority in my Department's response to the ongoing Covid pandemic. There has been a substantial level of engagement between my officials and senior officials of the Courts Service. This engagement with the Courts Service has included fortnightly multi-agency telephone conference meetings between senior officials, the continued development and implementation of contingency and business continuity plans, as well as regular engagement, not just on Covid-19 measures, but on current operational issues and strategic issues such as the modernisation of the court system. There is daily contact with officials by email and telephone regarding any issues or queries arising. There has been the establishment of working groups in the Department to ensure maintenance of access to justice.

Access to justice is important and must continue during Covid. Both the Department and the Courts Service are doing everything they can to ensure that access continues.

In his discussions with the Courts Service, will the Minister of State ask it to be flexible in arrangements for provincial courthouses? There has been a difficulty, which the service has said over the years, in that some courthouses need separate entrances for judges, victims of crime etc. Wheelchair accessibility has been an obvious issue for the past 30 years but nothing has been done on that.

Tralee courthouse goes back to the days of Daniel O'Connell. It was designed by a 16-year-old apprentice architect and has been part of the fabric of the town for years. Arrangements could be made, such as hiring out a conference centre or a hall in the local institute of technology, in order that juries can be sworn in and taken to a trial where the number of witnesses can be limited by agreement.

Will the Minister of State keep in mind that it is more than just the operation of justice and that it affects the whole of the town and town centres?

The Deputy has raised important issues.

Ten or 12 years ago, my home town of Enniscorthy lost its courthouse and this had a serious impact on the town. I encourage the Courts Service to keep town centre courthouses open as this facilitates access.

On the access aspect, I participated in the National Disability Authority's conference on access to justice only yesterday and I echoed the support from the Minister, Deputy McEntee, as well as me and the rest of the Department for ensuring access by people with disabilities to justice. I pointed out that my sister has a disability and uses a wheelchair, although I am thankful she has never had the need to access the courts. I am very aware of the access issues for anybody with a disability, and it is something very much to the fore of my mind. It is something I will keep to the fore in the Department of Justice and Equality as well.