Tipperary Solicitors Bar Association has warned of threat to court services in Tipperary and has maintained that Tipperary is being singled out for a review of its courts service, including courthouse closures.
Tipperary is the only county in Ireland to have been singled out for review of court operations, staffing and services by the Courts Service, according to a spokesperson from the Tipperary Solicitors Bar Association (TSBA).
They said that in September 2013, Tipperary suffered the loss of its Probate Service, which operated from Clonmel. This service dealt with the administration of wills and estates, allowing for the release of funds to next of kin and beneficiaries of deceased persons and allowing inheritance and transfers of property to be completed.
At that time the TSBA called on the Courts Service to reopen the Probate Service, which could only be closed by a Ministerial Order. The TSBA pointed out to the Courts Service the hardship to the public and loss of revenue to the Government.
In reply, the Courts Service indicated that they were reviewing all services in the Clonmel office and they required time to carry out the review before reopening the Probate Office. The TSBA understand that this review was completed in mid-2014. It was expected that the Probate Office would then re-open but this did not happen.
However, instead of re-opening the Probate Office, the Courts Service announced that the entire of court services and operations in Tipperary would be reviewed. The TSBA and other interested groups and Court users were requested to make Submissions in respect of the review.
This review has caused alarm to all users of the Courts Service. The TSBA notified its concerns to interested groups, Court users and political representatives, including Ministers, TDs and councillors. The TSBA sought and obtained copies of the Court Service Review documentation. It was clear from the documentation that the decision had already been made by the Building Committee of the Courts Service to shut down the court sittings in Carrick-on Suir and Tipperary Town and to transfer the Sittings to Clonmel and Thurles respectively. The staffing at Nenagh Courthouse was also reviewed by the Courts Service and a final decision has been deferred as to whether there should be any staff in Nenagh, leading to the downgrading of the courthouse.
Politicians, including Ministers from the locality, had been requested to enquire into the review situation and the only assurances received by the TSBA was that the Courthouse in Nenagh would not be closed. No indication had been given of proposed closures of court sittings in Carrick-on-Suir or in Tipperary Town.
The TSBA is now preparing a detailed submission for the Courts Service in respect of the effect the closures of court sittings in Carrick-on-Suir and Tipperary Town would have on the public, society in general and on other Court users.
Any proposed closures would mean other State agencies, such as the Gardaí, local authorities, the HSE, Probation Service and in particular the public, will have to pay the new expenditure, being the extra travel costs, overtime and extended court sessions that will arise.
While it is a matter of concern, that the budget for the Courts Service has been slashed by over 40 per cent, in the last number of years, the savings to the Courts Service, in closing courthouses and moving staff to other areas, results in an increase in cost to all taxpayers much more than the savings to the Court Service budget.
For example, the savings to the Court Service in any proposed closure of Carrick-on-Suir Courthouse, which is a building owned by the Courts Service, is the travel expenses for the court clerk and the heating and light for the days that court is held there. If the court sittings are transferred to Clonmel there would be substantial costs in overtime and travel for 15 gardaí and two sergeants, the cost of leaving the town of Carrick-on-Suir unattended during court days, when the Gardaí will be in Clonmel, the extra cost to citizens in travelling to Clonmel and making arrangements in respect of childcare etc. and the cost to the HSE and Probation Service of further travel and time for their employees.
In relation to Tipperary Town, while the Courts Service has indicated it does not have sufficient funds to repair the courthouse, a Private Capital Funding Scheme was offered to the Courts Service in 2006 which would have resulted in the courthouse being repaired and operating at present. However, this was declined by the Courts Service.
More recently, suitable alternative Government buildings in Tipperary Town, which are now vacant, have been identified to the Courts Service as replacement courthouses, but these have not been considered.
Given the geography of Tipperary, which is recognised by the Courts Service in their Strategy Report, the necessity for having a fully staffed office in Nenagh has been highlighted to the Courts Service on numerous occasions. Indeed, the Court Service has stated their policy that “Circuit Court sittings should in general be confined to cities and principal county venues, but there could be limited exception for geographically larger counties such as Cork, Tipperary, Donegal, Galway, Mayo and Clare”.
The loss of staff at Nenagh will lead to the downgrading of the courthouse. It is to be noted that up to €12m was spent repairing Nenagh Courthouse and over €260,000.00 was spent repairing Carrick-on-Suir Courthouse in 2006/2007. Both courthouses are fully operational with up-to-date facilities available, particularly at Nenagh Courthouse.
Why Tipperary, is the question we should all ask. The risk to access to local justice for the people of Tipperary is very real. The policy of centralisation to the detriment of rural Ireland is rearing its head once again.
The TSBA has sought and obtained full support from the Law Society of Ireland, which has urged the Courts Service to end all future Ccourt and Courts Service closures. It is to be noted that a reversal of a significant decision was obtained recently where the Courts Service sought, to the detriment of the citizens other court users and governmental budgets, to close a number of district courts in Swords, Tallaght and Dun Laoghaire.
The spokeperson pledged that their fight to maintain court services in Tipperary would continue.