A lack of social-distancing facilities saw legal cases be moved away from Derry's courthouse in Bishop Street to Coleraine
A dispute over the wording of a motion proposing that all court cases be once again heard in Derry broke out in last night's Council meeting.
Cllr Sean Carr (Independent) tabled a motion calling for clarity and commitment from the Northern Ireland Courts & Tribunals Service and the Department of Justice to restore legal hearings back to Derry's Bishop Street courthouse.
Inadequate social-distancing facilities at the Derry venue led to cases being moved to Coleraine to be heard and ensuring a long commute for all in Derry who had court business to attend to.
However, Cllr Rachael Ferguson (Alliance) insisted an amendment to the motion being made and blasted talk of Derry permanently losing its court services to Coleraine as “scare-mongering”.
Cllr Carr's motion read: “This Council recognises the importance of access to justice as a fundamental right.
“This Council notes that Derry Crown Court proceedings have been ongoing in Coleraine Courthouse since the onset of the Covid pandemic, initially due to practical problems in facilitating appropriate social distancing measures, particularly for jury trials.
“This Council recognizes the inherent inconvenience, disruption and stress for court users, including many vulnerable people, as well as citizens called for jury service.
“Council is concerned about the lack of plans in place to have Crown Court proceedings returned to Derry. Council also acknowledges that even prior to the pandemic there were difficulties in accommodating civil hearings and inquests in Derry.
“Council calls for proper commitment and action from NI Court Service and the Department of Justice to ensure that all citizens in this city and district should enjoy access to all aspects of the justice system.
“Council calls for proactive engagement between Derry City and Strabane District Council and NI Court Service and others to secure short-term and long-term solutions for the protection of all court services in this city and district, preferably sited in upgraded and expanded fit for purpose facilities in or around the current location within the City Centre.”
However, the amendment tabled by Cllr Ferguson called for the third paragraph to be changed to read: “This Council recognises the continuous commitment made by the Justice Minister to return jury trials to Bishop Street post Covid.”
The amendment also requested a line in the final paragraph welcoming “the commitment to major investment in the North West by the Northern Ireland Courts & Tribunals Service” and, in the penultimate paragraph above, the term “Council calls for proper commitment” to be changed to “further commitment”.
Cllr Ferguson said: “Justice Minister (Naomi) Long has continually answered questions and queries with regards to Bishop Street courthouse.
“In recent weeks, every time she's stated, whether it be on the Assembly floor, individual member's questions or on social media, that there's no plans to move the services from the courthouse to Coleraine.
“To imply the service is in jeopardy or will be discontinued is scare-mongering and is unhelpful.
“Rather than play politics with such a fundamental pillar in our democracy I think we really should acknowledge and welcome the goodwill completed by the Department – specifically the courts and the tribunal service and their willingness to keep the jury trials going during lockdown.
“I think there are inaccuracies about this motion. Where I do see the importance in making sure our court service is staying here in Derry we would like to propose an amendment.”
However, Cllr Maeve O'Neill (PBP) responded by saying: “I welcome Cllr Carr bringing this to Council.
“I wouldn't support the amendment. People Before Profit MLA, Gerry Carroll, has raised this before the Minister and the response, we felt, was inadequate and unconvincing.
“It's another example of the Stormont Minister being dismissive of issues west of the Bann.
“Here in Derry, we've had our electoral office taken away, people have to leave Derry to take their driving test and now the courthouse here can't even provide access to justice for local people here.
“Derry is being stripped clean so we really need to call the Minister out on this.”
A vote on the amendment was taken and was defeated with only 10 voting for it with 20 voting against ensuring the motion would stand in it's original form.
Earlier, when speaking in support of his motion, Cllr Sean Carr said: “The lack of court services in this city and district affect many – including some extremely vulnerable people.
“This issue raises serious questions about the basic human right to access justice.
“Anyone of us can find themselves in the criminal justice system. Whether it's facing a criminal charge, as a victim of crime, being called as a witness to give evidence, supporting a family member or on jury service.
“Court proceedings are stressful enough without the added burden of having to travel a considerable distance, the costs of doing so and not to mention the hassle of having to do an early-morning commute – and in some cases (before setting out) having to make childcare arrangements.
“Derry court proceedings are currently taking place in Coleraine. Getting from Derry to Coleraine's courthouse before 10am is not straightforward if you rely on public transport.
“The reality is that many court users do not have a car. It's a challenge – as we all know – to even get a taxi in Derry to take us to the railway station.
“When you get to Coleraine, you have half an hour's walk to their out-of-town courthouse.
“People from Belfast and east of the Bann don't have to jump through hoops to access basic human rights such as the right to justice.
“While we understand the onset of a public pandemic meant the facilities at Bishop Street courthouse could not accommodate social distancing, it is concerning that 18 months down the line, Court Services and the Department of Justice do not seem to have any roadmaps for the return back to Bishop Street.
“As a Council, we cannot afford to have any businesses diverted away from the city. Hotels, cafes, restaurants and shops were all affected by the transfer of court business.
“Although this motion focuses on Crown Court proceedings, it also infers to the fact that other aspects of justice have left the city. During the pandemic, families had to endure up and down trips to the Nightingale Court in Belfast for Inquest hearings.
“We need to hold Court Services and the Department of Justice accountable. Long-term investment in our courthouse is overdue.
“We need to bring all interested parties together to find a short and long-term solution to this issue.”
A vote was taken on Cllr Carr's motion and it was passed unanimously.
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