What other budget-saving measures or revenue raising opportunities have been explored before consulting on the closure of courts? One of the topics discussed during today’s Questions to the Minister of Justice, David Ford. The Minister confirmed that the NI Courts and Tribunals Service “reviewed all areas of expenditure to minimise the impact of budget reductions on front-line delivery.” This resulted in £4.4m (equivalent to 10.8% of the budget) worth of savings being identified in existing contracts, reducing leased accommodation, the temporary closure of the Old Townhall Building in Belfast, staff cuts and reducing judicial expenditure. These savings will be implemented over the next two financial years. The Courts and Tribunals Service is also considering increasing court fees as a means of raising revenue. Mr Ford argued that the process of closing courthouses was not a decision but rather “a consultation on the back of a very difficult financial situation for the Department of Justice and the savings that have to be made across the Courts and Tribunals Service.”
During Topical Questions the Minister was also asked about lethal legal highs following the recent tragic death of young Adam Owens in Newtownards. Mr Ford was quick to extend his sympathies to the Owens family but pointed out that, as the Misuse of Drugs Act is not a devolved matter, he has limited powers when it comes to making these new psychoactive drugs illegal. However he has been working with local councils to use consumer safety legislation to address the issue and has been lobbying the Home Office in an effort “to get it to take the matter seriously”. Mr Ford intends to consult with the appropriate Minister after the Westminster elections “to find legislation that actually deals with the reality on the ground and the tragedies that people have suffered in Northern Ireland”, adding that, “we must not allow the niceties of legislation or the occasional changing of a molecule in the chemical composition to obstruct the efforts of law enforcement agencies to protect people”.
During Question Time the Minister also answered Members’ questions on Magilligan prison, legal aid, the pilot scheme for indictable cases and legislation concerning fatal foetal abnormality.