Friday 28 November 2014

Closure of district courts will damage local communities

Diarmuid O Grada

Published 26/08/2014 | 02:30

The Four Courts in Dublin.
The Four Courts in Dublin

A decade ago the Government's proposal to relocate about 11,000 public service workers from Dublin to 53 separate locations was quite controversial.

Those promoting the scheme pointed to the benefits for the local infrastructure, including the construction sector. However, three years ago the plan was abandoned after only one-third of the target had been reached. It is quite ironic that this decentralisation proceeded while there was substantial withdrawal of other public servants from the very centres that were supposed to be supported, for example, in national schools and garda stations.

A good example of this withdrawal is provided by the closure of the district courts, because it gives us an insight into the wider loss of infrastructure throughout rural Ireland. Over the past 16 years, 162 district courts have been closed. Some counties have had their structure of justice administration sharply pared back: this really comes to light when we factor in the extensive closure of garda stations that was going on at the same time. County Cork has seen the most obvious retrenchment, with the loss of 18 district courts.

Mayo lost 14 and Clare lost 10. This loss is more keenly felt in places with low populations, such as County Leitrim, where four courts were shut down. Public concern has now become more vociferous as the cuts begin to affect Dublin. Some commentators have pointed to the vested interest of the Opposition. However, this continual reduction of rural settlements should be considered in the wider context of proper planning and sustainable development.

We might consider, too, the demographics of the legal system, and how the young and the elderly will travel to the new venues. Rural bus services are already under considerable pressure and we might ask whether these limited resources will be adapted to suit those attending the courts.

As we continue to degrade municipal functions there is a direct and corresponding diminution in the use of the public transport network, and this hits the smaller centres hardest. Put simply, there is a greater difference in the reduction within rural Ireland than might be seen in the pending losses in Dublin: people in the capital can access a variety of forms of public transport.

When the Courts Service devised its major strategy in 2007, there was little evidence of any planning input; the 10 committee members were mostly lawyers and legal administrators, with no planners. The annual reports of the Court Service described its approach as a once-in-a-generation reorganisation, and it then continued with the closures.

In its Strategic Plan 2011-2014, the Courts Service makes it clear that its main aim is centralisation. This closure of district courts is the direct opposite of what the Government wanted to achieve through the decentralisation of government offices. The stated intention was to inject new vitality by spreading the age and income profiles of the public sector into areas that were quite set apart. Some commentators envisaged such decentralisation would create a virtuous circle, adding to local shops, businesses and schools.

Many planners, including myself, questioned last decade's decentralisation plan, believing the gains would be too diluted and ineffectual. It would spread the jam too thinly. We are now forced to conclude it took the jam off the table. Those centres chosen for direct intervention need to be kept above a realistic threshold.

Most district courts have, by definition, already established their support structures. When the current proposal is examined in this light it appears to run counter to all those benefits that can come to the local community. We can predict the opposite impact, with an exodus of lawyers and all the associated impacts of the lost income spread across the community.

It will swell the upper end of the vacant housing stock where the demand has already fallen. Such a large-scale dilution of the district court function will require a new definition. It will no longer be a district service and this inevitably has wider community implications.

Dr Diarmuid O Grada is a planning consultant

Irish Independent

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