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Speeches

22/07/2010

Opening of Kilmallock Courthouse

Address by her Honour Judge Miriam Malone, President of the District Court,
at the official opening of Kilmallock Courthouse


Minister, Mayor, judicial colleagues, public representatives, court staff and invited guests,

It gives me great pleasure on behalf of the Chief Justice - Chairman of the Board of the Courts Service - and on behalf of the Board - to welcome you all to the opening of these new court facilities here in this historic, walled town of Kilmallock. This ultra modern addition to the townscape is both pleasing on the eye and complimentary of the heritage and antiquity around us. It pays tribute both to the essence and importance of the law in our lives, and to the excellence of the design and construction efforts which brought it to fruition.

I would like to offer a particular welcome to the Minister for Justice and Law Reform, Dermot Ahern T.D. We are very pleased to welcome you and thank you for taking time from your very busy schedule in your continued management of one of the most challenging Government departments.

New courthouse

Today’s proceedings see us attend at the official opening of this fine facility - which is already being put to good use for the public’s benefit. It is a good day for the people of Kilmallock and those who have cause to use the court here. The total cost of the project was €2.5 million.

The riverside town of Kilmallock, dating from the 7th century, is a veritable palimpsest of history, recording as it does the layering of the civic and cultural life of this community over 1000 years. Included in this history is the castle tower centred on the main street with its perimeter walls and gates, the ruins of the Dominican friary and the earlier Abbey.

This new civic precinct is poised to reinvigorate the cultural and civic life of the town containing as it does, not only this forum of justice, but also access to civil administration through the local authority area office, and through the shared literature and knowledge of the Branch Library. The existing entrance building to the now-demolished workhouse (built in1841 to a design by G. Wilkinson) forms the entrance to this court building. The excellence of the design has already been recognised in the recent RIAI Award for ‘Best Public Building’.

The works on the courthouse

As nothing of the original interior remained, the building was stripped to form a great double-height hall as a new entrance - to a new home - for an ancient institution. This courtroom, which we just accessed via a lobby which allows us a glimpse at the garden beyond, is walnut-panelled in contrast to the cool entrance hall. Lit by clerestory glazing, this space with its dark furnishings and filtered light is in the tradition of Irish courtrooms dating from the 19th Century. A suite of meeting rooms and accommodation for legal practitioners and their clients are accessed from the entrance hall. Secure, independent access is provided from the rear for prisoners, while the judge’s chambers, also independently accessed, have views to a secret garden (well now it is not so secret!). This will surely provide relief from the introverted, at times stressful, world of the District Court, where 99% of all criminal matters in the State begin and where 90% are ultimately dealt with.

Environment and energy

All spaces in this complex are day-lit, with the use of diverse techniques to introduce natural lighting. Ceiling heights are generous, increasing daylight penetration throughout. Wall and ceilings are further used to reflect light within the building. The artificial lighting which is used, is photo-controlled, responding to internal lighting levels by automatically dimming. I t is also activated by occupant movement which further increases energy efficiency.

The building is constructed using a concrete by-product of the steel industry, reducing the carbon footprint of the project. High levels of external insulation, combined with strategic use of glass, reduce heat loss and maximise passive solar gains. Use of indigenous materials including local stone, reduced the energy used in the transportation of materials. A biomass wood-pellet boiler is supplemented by solar panels for heat and hot water requirements. An array of photovoltaic panels, laid out on south-facing roofs, provide electricity for use in the building, with the excess being sold back to the national grid. It is estimated there will be a 45% reduction in carbon emissions will be achieved through these measures.

Access

The new buildings are the main point of contact between the community and public service providers in the district. As such, they cater for people of diverse needs and abilities. The principle of ‘Access for All’ is fundamental to the service provision of the Courts Service. In this regard I am very pleased that, as well as Kilmallock being an award winning building, our new Criminal Courts of Justice in Dublin was the recipient of an Irish architectural award for access, as well as winning the public’s favourite new building category.

Access here is achieved through the strategy of placing all accommodation at ground level thus minimising and, where possible, eliminating all changes in level throughout the project. This has been matched with an uncluttered and well planned public space, layout and furnishing.

Courts Service modernisation programme

The finished project that you see around you here today is in keeping with the ongoing modernisation of the courts since the establishment of the Courts Service in late 1999. It is a process that is guided by the Service’s Strategic Plan which includes many measures to improve customer service and access, to simplify regulation and to provide new technologies. It continues the development of eGovernment initiatives - such as Small Claims and Fines Online and the electronic transfer of family law payments. Such projects provide the public with a swift round-the-clock portal in dealing with their court business. Our ICT systems have also been developed to allow a large amount of information be available to the public online. This includes judgments, forms, court lists and a high court case search facility.

The first report of the Working Group on a Courts Commission which was published in April, 1996, commented that "the current deplorable state of many courthouses is the most striking visible manifestation of the absence of adequate funding over the last 70 years to provide the necessary resources for the administration of justice".

The situation changed vastly over the past decade. In that time, over fifty courthouses have been completely refurbished or constructed, marking an investment of around €250m in the building stock since 1999, with another 100 other venues receiving upgrades or major maintenance works as well. Video conferencing systems have been installed in many courthouses and digital audio recording of court proceedings is working and being rolled out at present to courts across the country.

At the same time we are examining and changing our procedures, rules and operations, to make the best use of these technologies and to acknowledge the changed face and pace of Irish life. We have in place a dedicated Directorate of Reform and Development who drive this work, and who are a major resource for the Courts Rules Committees in implementing new and improved court rules.

Changed times

There is no doubting we are in changed times, organisationally, economically and culturally. The Ireland of today is a lot different from 30 or 40 years ago. The population increase - particularly in urban areas has brought increased demands for court services in many counties. Demographic, social and inf rastructural changes are also a factor in deciding the future shape of Districts and services: increases in commercial activity and disputes, increased access to transport, and improved and increased use of roads are other issueswhich influence plans.

The energetic and speedy pace of our courthouse refurbishment programme will inevitably have to slow down in the current economic climate. The monies are just not available to continue with the expansion of court facilities in the immediate future. The continued implementation of our building programme will be more focussed on venues where there is greater demand, namely county town venues.

The one thing we have undertaken and managed to achieve in these straitened times is that we have not and will not cut back on frontline court room and court user services. Indeed, in many ways the new efficiencies have helped us focus our mind on the better delivery of customer service to all user groups.

In this environment the area of case progression or case management continues to develop, freeing up judicial resources. Rules for case progression of family law litigation by County Registrars in Circuit Courts were approved by the Circuit Court Rules Committee. A procedural scheme has also been prepared for case progression of litigation generally in the High Court.

Likewise, in meeting our mandate of bringing information to the public, we have an information office which has produced an abundance of information about the courts. This has included a secondary school learning resource and DVD, an award winning website - which is updated daily with the next day’s court lists, and the online provision of leaflets, explanatory booklets and forms for the District and other courts. We have also produced a DVD and booklet for young people who are summonsed as witnesses - which is distributed through the Barnardos charity and on social networking sites such as Facebook.

These are just some of the areas where work has been undertaken to modernise the courts. Minister, we look forward to a continued constructive and cooperative relationship with your department in further improving facilities and services for court users - just one example of which is on view in Kilmallock today.

Our thanks

We owe a debt of gratitude to those behind this joint project: to the main contractor Brian McCarthy Contractors Ltd and also to ABK Architects, who fulfilled a dynamic brief. We also thank the staff of Limerick Co Council, and County Manager Edmond Gleeson, and also the Office of Public Works.

All involved are to be congratulated on this fine building. Further thanks go to Judge Mary O’Halloran, Chief Clerk Peter Golden and the court staff all of whom operated with patience, awaiting the completion of this very worthwhile project.

I would also like to thank the CEO of the Courts Service Brendan Ryan and Paul Burns Head of Infrastructure Services with responsibility for our building programme. Particular thanks goes the staff of the Estates and Buildings unit - where recently retired stalwart Shay Kirk was central to this project, and where the new incumbent John Mahon is continuing the great work. We are also very grateful to our local regional manager Eamonn Kiely and his staff for their input and efforts here.

I further thank the Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Law Reform, Sean Aylward, and his staff particularly, Bob Browne and Oonagh McPhillips for their tremendous support and encouragement for our modernisation programme since our establishment ten years ago.

We are grateful for both the Minister’s and the Government’s support and funding which has enabled us to achieve projects such as this courthouse and so many others over the past ten years.