On the 28th June Kevin Hickey, President of the Monaghan Bar Association and local solicitor in Clones, wrote to Ms. Paula Lyons, Northern Regional Manager of the Courts Services. This was subsequent to a meeting with the Clones Councillors and local solicitors Kevin Hickey and Brian Morgan at Clones Courthouse detailing 7 reasons why the Courts Service should defer its decision on Monday 1st July to close Clones Courthouse in order to consider the following:
These 7 reasons are summarized as follows :
1. Submissions Made by Monaghan Bar Association
In his Report to the Courts Service of April 2013, Mr. J Coyle, Head of Operations of the Courts Service, made reference to the submissions which were delivered by the Monaghan Bar Association. These submissions were made with regard to the points which were allocated to Clones District Court on foot of which the Courthouse fell into the category for consideration for closure. It was submitted that Mr. Coyle’s Report should not have gone before the Courts Service Board for consideration without an assessment of the submissions on the calculation of points which had been made by the Monaghan Bar Association. Rather, what had been done was that Mr. Coyle has included those submissions in his Report but made no commentary whatsoever with regard to same and nor was it clear to the Monaghan Bar Association whether those submissions had been delivered to the Buildings Committee for its consideration. Kevin Hickey had submitted a Freedom of Information Act Request to the Courts Service requesting information of this nature, which Request was declined by letter dated 21st June 2013. An Appeal had been submitted by him requesting an Internal Review.
2. Freedom of Information Act Appeal
It was submitted that it would be inappropriate for the Courts Service to consider the Report of Mr. J Coyle without allowing the Monaghan Bar Association to complete the Internal Review Appeal which had now been submitted and any Complaint to the Information Commissioner which may be necessitated arising on any adverse Decision of the Courts Service.
3. Council Proposal to absorb Cost of Maintenance of Clones Courthouse
It was accepted by Ms. Lyons that the global figure of €9,000 per annum was a net saving to the Exchequer and that the only cost of courthouse provision to the Courts Service was €5,737 per annum (the cost of Skibbereen Courthouse was acknowledged in a Dail Question on the 7th November last at between €9,500 and €10,000). Ms. Lyons stated that if a proposal was made by Monaghan County Council that it would absorb this cost, thus allowing the Courts Service access to the Building without any cost contribution, this proposal would be considered by the Board. In those circumstances it was requested that the Board should defer its decision to allow such a proposal to be made in writing by the Council.
4. Venue Report 6/2013 of Mr. J Coyle, Head of Operations
The solicitors had had sight of the Venue Report of Mr. J. Coyle dated April 2013 and his more detailed “Venue Review” Report which had been delivered to Ms. Geraldine Killen of Clones Town Council. Kevin Hickey was extremely concerned that it was represented at the 8th paragraph (1st paragraph, 2nd page) of that Report that the other stakeholders who were consulted, such as the Probation Service and the Legal Aid Board (others named) “were in favour of closure”.
A reading of the sixth page of that Venue Review Report indicated that in fact the CEO of the Probation Service (in summary) had expressed the view that the principle concern of the Probation Service was access to Courts by users “but this seems to have been taken into account by the Courts Service in its review”. It was submitted that it had not been adequately taken into account by the Courts Service in its review.
Of more concern however was the fact that it was reported on that page (again, in summary) that the CEO of the Legal Aid Board expressly stated that “the closure of venues can however raise difficulties for people to access the Courts which could be a practical challenge in, for example, cases on foot of the Child Care Act 1991”
It was submitted that those summary comments by the above CEO’s had been misrepresented by Mr. Coyle where he stated that those bodies “were in favour of closure”.
It was documents of that very nature (which were not delivered) which would form the basis of the FOI Appeal and which documents should also be brought to the attention of the Courts Service before making its final deliberation.
5. Increase in Civil jurisdiction
The Civil Jurisdiction limit presently in the District Court is €5,000. This is due to increase to €15,000. This will increase the Civil Court load of Clones District Court. It is difficult to understand how any recommendation of the closure of the Court in Clones could have been made without a consideration of the impact of the increase in Court Jurisdiction. The Court Service should therefore be requested to report on how the increase in Jurisdiction will affect the Court List.
6. The New System for Local Government
The Report of Mr. Coyle did not appear to have considered the consequences of the new system for Local Government which has been proposed by Minister Hogan’s Report “Putting People First” which proposes a complete restructuring of Local Government where in County Monaghan, three Electoral Districts of (1) Monaghan, (2) Carrickmacross/Castleblayney and (3) Clones/Ballybay will be implemented. It is understood that Minister Hogan is very much in favour of the contents of this Report and, subject to its enactment, the Electoral District of Clones/Ballybay will comprise in excess of 40% of the geographical area of County Monaghan. Ironically, this 3-way division of those areas is already the way in which the current District Courts are presently divided.
Bearing in mind the submissions which were made by Adge King, Town Manager (detailed below) in which he points out the progress which has been made to date in Clones in revitalising the town, it was submitted that it would be inappropriate for the Courts Service to give any consideration to the closure of the District Court Area of Clones without a full consideration of the above Report.
Furthermore, it was submitted that, pending the implementation of the “Putting People First” Report, it would be more appropriate for the Courts Service to transfer the old Ballybay List to the District Court area of Clones where the 3 District Court areas could be run to advance the 3 new Council administrative areas. It was submitted that the Board could not come to a decision on this without considering the contents of the “Putting People First” Report.
7. Comments of Adge King, Town Manager
Mr. King made reference to the great work which has been done in Clones in the last decade in revitalising the town of Clones, pointing to the construction of the County Library, the refurbishment of the Courthouse and many other structural enhancements. He also referred to the recent issue of the Grants of Planning Permission for the Ulster Canal to Clones, which will increase trade in the town. He stated that the plan of the Town Council was to restore Clones to something what it was like in the past. All of this would lead ultimately to an increased list in Clones District Court.
He stated that the Council would do all that it could to support the retention of the Court sittings and it was submitted that this was indicative of the fact that the Council would seriously consider absorbing the maintenance cost referred to above.
It was requested in the circumstances that the Courts Service would not unduly rush its decision where many important factors had not been considered.
The Court Service`s Response
On the 2nd July last the Courts Service replied to Kevin Hickey stating that “on the 1st July last the Courts Service Board approved the closure of the court venue at Clones and the amalgamation of the District Court area of Clones Court area with the District Court area of Monaghan. In reaching its decision the Board took account of all submissions received through the consultation process with court users which were circulated to all Board members”.
In many Questions filed in the Dail by local TDs of target courthouses the Minister for Justice issued the same platitude that “this consultation (would) be undertaken at an early stage in the assessment process in order that all views can be fully reflected in the decision-making process”.
The solicitors and town councillors in Clones tried to seriously engage with the Courts Service as to why the Courthouse in Clones should not be closed. After a meeting in Clones on the 28th June last a detailed letter was submitted detailing why the decision should be deferred. There would have been no prejudice to the Courts Service had it deferred its decision, bearing in mind that the targeted courthouses will not close until the 1st January next.
The decision on Skibbereen courthouse was deferred. The decision on Clones Courthouse was not.
The people of Clones were led to believe that their courthouse would not be closed without consultation. It would appear that there is a difference in understanding between the Courts Service and the people of Clones on the meaning of “Consultation”.