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Address by Minister for Justice and Equality, Charlie Flanagan TD,
at the official opening of Waterford Courthouse
9 April 2018
Chief Justice, members of the judiciary, fellow Oireachtas members, Mayor of Waterford City and Council, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.
I am delighted to be here in Waterford on this landmark day, for the official opening of the refurbished and extended Waterford courthouse.
Refurbished, and extended, and also, of course, historic. This magnificent building dates back nearly 200 years, to 1849 when it was designed by J B Keane. But in some ways, it goes back even further, in that it was built near the site of the 12th century Augustinian Priory of St. Catherine... the priory is of course long vanished, but I understand that during the recent construction an archaeological excavation of the area was carried out when the remains of a medieval graveyard associated with the Abbey were discovered.
So we can be proud, this is one of those projects which preserves the best of the past, while serving the needs of the present.
And courthouses certainly do serve us all. They may not be places the average person visits unless they need or have to, but they represent so much. In any community, they are the physical manifestation of the rule of law, reminding us that we live in a full and free democracy with independent administration of justice at the very heart of it.
As to this particular courthouse, well there’s no question but that the new extension is going to make a huge difference to those who use it. For a start, there is just so much more space. The new block is 6000 square metres, compared to the old courthouse’s just over 1000 and there will now be 6 courtrooms, compared to the previous 2. So whether a person comes here to work; to seek vindication; to face justice; or, as a jury member to pass judgement…. everyone will now enter a courthouse which integrates the old and the new, which is open and approachable, and which inspires confidence without being intimidating.
It’s going to be a busy courthouse - in 2016 alone, over 7 and a half thousand matters, across 209 sitting days, were dealt with by the District Court sitting in Waterford, and another 634 matters, over 150 days, were disposed of by the Circuit Court sitting in Waterford and Dungarvan.
So that’s a lot of cases, cases which represent, for a lot of the people involved, stress. A courthouse is a place where life-changing decisions can occur. It’s a place where complex and sensitive issues that affect people’s lives are dealt with. It can be intimidating and that’s why it is so good to see the additions here. The new Courthouse has a vulnerable witness suite, a victim support room, a legal practitioners’ room, as well as consultation rooms, a jury reception room, and enhanced custody facilities.
Of course every service or system which is updating these days has to take technology into account – and the courts service is no different. The Combined Court Office in Waterford already has access to a number of Courts Service ICT systems, particularly the Criminal Case Tracking System, and I am pleased to note that, during the course of 2018, a new eLicensing System will be made available to the Office here. It will facilitate the electronic lodgement and administration of licensing from a solicitor’s own office and it is just a part of a wider programme which is modernising the administration of court business.
Legal reform is a priority for this government and indeed for the one which preceeded it. You can see that in what we have done from the establishment of the new Court of Appeal, to the new Legal Services Regulatory Authority, to the new Office of the Legal Costs Adjudicator. And there is more to come, including our plans to establish a dedicated Family Court within existing structures.
But it is only right that as we update our laws and legal systems that we also update our buildings and that is what we are doing now. The government announced its intention in this area back in 2012, and in the last number of months we have really seen the fruits of that commitment. This is actually the fifth opening I have been privileged to attend as Minister. Last year, I was delighted to open the Drogheda Courthouse with former Chief Justice, Susan Denham, in the last two months, I had a pleasure of opening courthouses in Letterkenny, Wexford and Limerick with the current Chief Justice Frank Clarke, and I hope later this year, Mr Justice Clarke and I will be presiding over the completion of another two substantial refurbishments and extensions – in Cork and Mullingar.
It is a lot of building. In terms of scale, this Courts Public Private Partnership Bundle project has delivered a total of 31 courtrooms and 36,000 square meters of accommodation nationwide. It is the largest capital building project ever undertaken by the Courts Service. But it’s as important and valuable a project as it is a huge one.
So, to the Courts Service, to the Courts Service Board, to the Office of Public Works, to the National Development Finance Agency, and indeed to members of my own department – I want to say congratulations and thank you. Congratulations on bringing such an ambitious programme so far along the road that it is so near completion… and thank you for helping us, as a government, deliver improved access to justice, through, in these cases, much improved and updated infrastructure.
And finally, speaking of infrastructure, I want to finish by acknowledging the work of those who in a very - yes - concrete way, actually put it in place… the builders! BAM construction were the main contractors on the job… as a 26 million euro capital project, it was a big one.
So, to BAM, thank you, for great work, well done. I am confident that this new courthouse will meet the needs of Waterford and the surrounding area for many decades to come.