MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Closures of rural courthouses are unjust

TIME and again, over the last few years, the powers-that-be have been well-versed on the price of everything, but on the value of nothing. With each cutback, cost-savings have been invoked. Oftentimes, a little creative accounting has been engaged to push a so-called reform that purports to be for the long-term common good.

The latest victim of this lazy agenda is the very fabric of a functioning democracy — the administration of justice.

All around the country, courthouses are being closed as if they were little more than commercial centres where the bottom line no longer adds up. Seventy seven courts have been closed in the State since 2008.

In areas like West Cork, local justice is at stake. Seven courthouses have been closed in recent years, stretching from Kinsale to Castletownbere.

Skibbereen is due to close, following an announcement last October, but the local legal eagles are challenging this. The courthouse in the West Cork town costs €8,000 a year to maintain, mere pennies from a Court Service budget of close on €100m.

And that figure for maintenance takes no account of what it will cost to transport frequent attendees, like garda members, HSE officials, or social workers, to other centres for hearings.

In Dublin, ‘reform’ will see the closure of four courthouses in the greater city area: Dun Laoighre, Tallaght, Swords and Balbriggan, all retain, to a greater or lesser extent, the character of towns, yet now their local justice will be administered either in the city, or in some outlying area, like Blanchardstown. If the closures go ahead, there will be no district court between Bray, in Co Wicklow, and the northside of the city.

The constitutional right to the administration of justice locally is heading into soft ground.

It’s the same story around the country.

Up in Clones, Co Monaghan, they closed the courthouse down last year. It cost €5,700 to maintain annually, and underwent major refurbishment some years ago.

By contrast, there’s money to burn in the urban centres. A new complex in Cork City’s Anglesea Street is to cost €25m. There’s no doubt that the current facility requires upgrading, and that the family law courts, in particular, need investment.

But the optics are very poor, when pennies are cited as savings in large tracts of rural Ireland, while only the finest will suffice in urban centres.

The rural district court has a nostalgic image. Newsprint and literature have mined the courts, where local humour and foibles were given a stage and decorum was nominally required.

Characters, chancers, eccentric judges, local wags and drunks often achieved Andy Warhol’s five minutes of fame on the back of a routine tale of ‘found-ons’, or whatever minor indiscretions could befall a body in the midnight hour, when full of porter.

Much of that stuff was the froth, while the real meat and drink of district courts is largely mundane, providing little colour beyond maintaining order for local life.

Today, 60% of the business conducted in district courts involves traffic offences.

That, in itself, is a reflection of the impact that private transport has had on rural life over the last 30 or 40 years.

Ironically, one of the mitigating factors in the Court Service’s closure agenda is that public transport is now widely available to access the next nearest sitting. That is patently not the case. Improvements in transport were also cited as contributing towards the closure of rural garda stations, but the idea that An Garda Síochána has a highly mobile, sophisticated fleet has little purchase outside the departmental bean counters.

There is a huge societal value in administrating justice locally.

For the offender, a form of natural justice is appended to the rule of law. He or she must not just answer to the court, but do so in full glare of the local community. Some suggest that this embarrassment can act as a deterrent.

Much of what has to be adjudicated on requires little more than commonsense, but that needs to be informed by local knowledge.

A judge coming to a town for years will know the seed and breed of those who might be given to petty crime; she will be aware of the local geography if a traffic offender is pleading mitigation; the sense of occasion that might have informed an indiscretion under licensing laws will be given due consideration.

The judge may not be of the town, but she will know it in a way that a colleague sitting at a geographical remove won’t. Under such ‘reform’, the law is no longer of the people, but an instrument of the State, commanding citizens to come to heel.

Resistance to the onslaught has been slow. The local court, after all, is not a place where most people want to find themselves. And so, it’s the practitioners who have been first to the barricades. Only problem is that the legal business does not generally make for a sympathetic defender of the common good. As a well-got vested interest, the business tends to conflate its interests and what it portrays as the common good. But just because lawyers are for it doesn’t mean that it must be inherently a bad thing.

The standing of lawyers, however, does allow figures like Finance Minister Michael Noonan to portray the matter as one of a vested interest rather than for the common good.

When asked about criticisms from the Law Society, the Finance Minister resorted to glibness.

“I think they have an inscription, in Latin, over The King’s Inns, which effectively means ‘nothing will ever change’. But the signal we would like to give the profession is that the new Minister for Justice is available for discussions about the various matters, and they are the professionals in the system, and we will take their advice very seriously, but the position of ‘no change’, that’s not a runner.” (The King’s Inn, by the way, is the preserve of the Bar, rather than solicitors, but detail is ditched when reaching for a glib riposte).

At times like these, Noonan comes across as an accountant of secondment from Brussels, rather than a tribune of the people, concerned with the betterment of society.

Contrary to what the minster says, there has been great change in this State in recent years. What is now emerging is a two-track society. Recovery is underway in the cities, particularly Dublin. Beyond, rural Ireland is running to a standstill.

Removing the administration of justice from these towns is just the latest in a series of indignities suffered because of what is often mere window dressing for so-called ‘reform’. This one, however, has huge symbolic significance. It’s high time some proper thought was given to acceleration by the State of the decline of rural Ireland.


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