Dáil Éireann - Volume 471 - 13 November, 1996
Adjournment Debate. - District Court Accommodation.
Mr. O'Donoghue Mr. O'Donoghue
Mr. O'Donoghue: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this matter and the Minister of State for his attendance.
Up to the commencement of the current law term the District Court in Dublin operated from three courts within the Four Courts. The Department of Justice decided to take over the three courts and convert them for High Court sittings. It intended to rent vacant offices in Dollard House beside the Clarence Hotel to transact the business of two of the courts in that building. The problem is the Department was not aware that the courts in Dollard House would be dealing with persons in custody and, accordingly, there was no provision for holding cells in the building. It was also unaware that its geographical location made it entirely unsuitable. I understand the Garda were opposed to the plan for security reasons.
By the time these facts came to the notice of the Department the proposal had gone as far as planning application stage. At the same time, the Department proposed to transfer the third District Court to the courthouse in Green Street where the Special Criminal Court sits. Again it had to be pointed out that there were no holding cells there and that there were major security considerations, such as ordinary criminals and subversives mixing. The Department had not even considered the security implications and, amazingly, it did not consult the Garda. In any event, this proposal was also abandoned and judges sitting in this court were directed to adjourn cases to the court in Green Street and any cases so adjourned may now fall.
There was also a proposal around the same time to move the parking fines court from Smithfield to the Central Mission in Lower Abbey Street. The proposal related to the second floor of the building which consist of a badminton hall that is 45 steps above entrance level. The premises, which consist of church buildings, are used for a combination of religious and other uses during the day. A healing ministry is held each Wednesday and funeral services are conducted from time to time in the morning in the hall floor chapel. Other groups also use the premises. The church provides a catering facility for those groups from mid-morning onwards. Access is not suitable for elderly people or women with children in pushchairs.
 The matter was brought to the attention of the Minister for Justice but she refused to reconsider the proposal. Subsequently many hundreds, if not thousands, of summonses were issued and served for the venue which was due to commence on Monday of this week. The saga did not end there. It transpired that there was no planning permission for the change of use nor was the proper planning procedure followed by the Department. Notwithstanding grave reservations expressed by interested parties as to the suitability of the premises, its use is to proceed as soon as planning is in order.
The Department of Justice was requesting District Justice to go into a premises which did not have planning permission. It is a criminal offence to use a premises without planning permission so the judges were being placed in an invidious position. Summonses issued for this court may well prove to be of doubtful validity and this may result in many cases falling. It would probably be asking too much of a Minister for Justice, who does not receive or respond to personal letters from a judge in the Special Criminal Court and who only receives some letters from the Attorney General about that court, to provide adequate District Court accommodation in Dublin, let alone accept political responsibility for this shambles.
Minister of State at the Department of Justice (Mr. Currie) Austin Currie
Minister of State at the Department of Justice (Mr. Currie): I thank the Deputy for giving me an opportunity to speak to the House on this matter. Deputies will appreciate that, arising from a recent appointment by the Government of 16 additional Supreme, High, Circuit and District Judges under the Court and Court Officers Act, 1995, it was necessary to provide courtrooms and ancillary facilities for them.
As the majority of the additional judges will sit in the Dublin metropolitan area there is a need to provide courtroom accommodation in Dublin for the short and medium term, pending the availability of further accommodation in the Four Courts. In this light the Department of Justice asked the Office of Public Works, who act as the Department's agents in this respect, to source the necessary accommodation for both short-term and long-term use.
I am aware that for practical and administrative reasons, ideally the courts in Dublin city should be centralised either in or around the Four Courts. However, as Deputies can appreciate, at this particular time the need for courtroom accommodation in the Four Courts area outstrips availability. The Department plans to move the Land Registry out of the Four Courts complex and use the accommodation which this will make available for additional courtroom and court office accommodation and facilities. However, it will take considerable time for the Land Registry building to become available for court accommodation. The Office of Public Works has just completed a scoping survey of the Four  Courts which will help to properly plan what is required in the long-term.
In the meantime, the Office of Public Works has reported on the various options for additional short to medium term court accommodation which is available and the following options are being pursued. First, the premises of the former Richmond Hospital are being leased for ten years and will yield five courtrooms and ancillary facilities. Work on the refurbishment has commenced and will be completed and ready for court use in late April 1997. The property at Riverbank Theatre is being leased to provide three courtrooms and ancillary facilities. Work on refurbishment is under way and the facilities are scheduled to be ready for use in early February 1997.
Deputies will also be aware of recent media coverage in relation to a premises in Abbey Street. A premises in Abbey Street, which was used up to late 1988 as court accommodation, was sourced by the Office of Public Works for short-term use and it negotiated a lease on the building for use as temporary court accommodation.
Responsibility for obtaining any necessary planning permission for the change of use of the premises rests with the Office of Public Works. The Minister understands that a senior architect from the Office of Public Works discussed the use of the premises in Abbey Street with a senior planning officer in Dublin Corporation and was given an opinion by the senior planning officer that, as the building in question had been used for court sittings in the recent past, there was no change of use involved in having a temporary court in the building. On this basis the Office of Public Works did not seek planning permission. The Office of Public Works informed the Department that the premises would be available for use as a court from 11 November 1996.
The decision not to seek planning permission was challenged by a solicitor on behalf of a client. On receipt of this challenge, confirmation of the need for planning permission was sought from the Office of Public Works and the planning officer. At this stage the senior planning officer informed the Department he was now of the opinion that planning permission should be sought. On this basis the President of the District Court decided he would adjourn all the cases listed for hearing in Abbey Street until a later date. The Minister understands that the Office of Public Works is making preparations to seek the necessary planning permission.
As these developments only came to light late last week, it was not possible to notify the people summoned for the earlier days of this week. However, all persons involved are being notified. A member of the court staff will be on hand at the premises this week to inform people who turn up. This inconvenience to the public, their legal representative and members of the Garda is regretted but the matter is being addressed and the court cases will be heard at a future date.
 The Minister has been informed that when the additional court facilities become available at the Riverbank Theatre and the Richmond in February and April 1997 respectively, the accommodation will be adequate to meet current requirements.
Dáil Éireann 471 Adjournment Debate. District Court Accommodation.