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Speeches

15/10/2010

Opening of Kilkenny Courthouse


Address by the Chief Justice, Mr Justice John L. Murray, at the opening of Kilkenny Courthouse


Minister, Mayor, Cathaoirleach, President of the High Court, other judicial colleagues, public representatives, court staff and invited guests,

It gives me great pleasure as Chairman of the Board of the Courts Service - and on behalf of the Board - to welcome all present to the opening of these new court facilities in the city of Kilkenny. The building project, the fruits of which we see around us today, posed particular challenges to the Courts Service and in particular the project team to marry a courthouse, whose origins go back to the late 18th century (although parts of its fabric can be traced back to a castle which occupied the site in the 13th century) with the demands and needs of Kilkenny in the 21st century.

I would like to extend a particular welcome to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Dermot Ahern and express the appreciation of the Board that he has agreed to formally open the newly reconstructed courthouse today. I would like to thank the Mayor for his warm words of welcome.

This courthouse has been appraised by the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage as "an edifice of national significance in the architectural heritage of Kilkenny …". The project team, and indeed all those associated with the refurbishment and the extension of the courthouse, but in particular the architects, are to be congratulated on preserving the fine attributes of the existing courthouse while at the same time sympathetically extending and adapting it to the needs of modern society so as to both preserve and enhance the building as part of the cultural heritage of the people of Kilkenny.

Kilkenny is a noble city of ancient origins dating back to the 6th century - a city steeped in a history that in many ways mirrors the glories and tragedies of our nation throughout the centuries. At key points in that history it was the cauldron in which national aspirations to freedom and independence were forged and thus itself often was the battleground on which the oppressor and the oppressed clashed violently.

As the statute books of those centuries show, the law was used as a weapon for the suppression of rights, a notorious example being that of the Statute of Kilkenny of 1336. In the 20th century with the coming of independence and the enactment of our 1922 Constitution and in particular the adoption of the Constitution of 1937 the law, in accordance with the fundamental guarantees contained in that Constitution, has become the protector of rights rather than their suppressor.

In earlier centuries Western Europe and their colonies were typically under the autocratic rule of Emperor Monarch or Prince in whom all powers of government were vested and when the rights and dignity of the individual counted for little.

The first great experiment of government of the people by the people was born with the adoption of the Constitution of the United States, its details and structure being the fruition of many months of debate by the representatives of the Confederation. The cry in the Kingdoms of Europe at the time was that government through popular vote or under a written Constitution would be no more than mob rule which would lead to chaos and collapse. We know that the constitutional experiment, as it was viewed by the founding fathers of the American Constitution themselves, succeeded and since that time the American Constitution with its incorporation of the separation of powers, became a source of inspiration for all subsequent constitutions of liberal democracies, including our own.

James Bryce in his 19th century seminal work - the American Commonwealth - notes that "the fathers of the Constitution studied nothing more than to secure the complete independence of the judiciary." As James Hamilton, one of those founding fathers, wrote, an independent judiciary under the Constitution would prove to be the "citadel of public justice and public security." It was this that led Thomas Paine to state "America has no Monarch: here the law is king."

Our Constitution recognises that all power rests with the people and that the organs of State, executive, legislative and judicial, exercise their powers on behalf of the people in the interests of the common good and that each such organ of State is obliged to defend and vindicate the personal rights of the citizens.

Today as we mark the re-opening of this magnificent courthouse it is well to remind ourselves that it is more than just a fine building - it is a citadel of justice. In that sense its foundations are rooted in the rule of law and it embodies our constitutional ideals in a real and substantive way. It is in the courthouse that the law and justice meet under the canopy of the Constitution in a solemn process in which the rights and obligations of the citizen are protected and determined. Thus the Courts and indeed the law are not the preserve of judges or lawyers but belong to the people. The onerous duty of the judiciary is to administer the law and justice independently and fairly in the name of the people in the interests of the common good and with respect for the dignity of the individual.

This Court will stand for decades indeed further centuries to come not only as a seat of justice but as a monument to the history of Kilkenny and a jewel in the heritage of its people.

Works and facilities

In addition to the refurbishment of the existing courthouse building the project involved the construction of a new 3,000 sq. metre extension. The total construction and fit out costs of the project were €17 m. This was an essential and necessary investment for the proper functioning of the administration of justice in Kilkenny and indeed the South East generally. The extension is linked to the existing structure by a new atrium which serves as a new public entrance. The original entrance is also retained. The works provide new and improved accommodation for all court users and include two new courtrooms, victim support room, improved jury facilities and wheelchair access throughout.

Design

As indicated the intent of the design and refurbishment was to renovate in a sensitive way the existing historic building, and to create a high-quality modern extension providing additional accommodation for users. This has been achieved with flourish and expertise. In achieving this, durable sustainable materials such as stone, copper and wood were used to absorb the existing architectural fabric and open the historic building to fresh interpretation. The new and the old relate to each other by virtue of their proportions, by the choice of materials used and most importantly by the quality of the space created.

Archaeological finds

Being centred in such a historic venue the initial works at the rear of the courthouse caused great anticipation in the archaeological community. The dig yielded extensive finds, many unique in Kilkenny. About 30 burials were found, probably mostly of prisoners, and possibly one from medieval times. Because the site falls to the River Nore and is very damp, the archaeologists found many very well preserved items such as a child’s toy, wooden spindles, even shingles of wooden mediaeval roofs about which little had been known. The rare "wet" archaeology also revealed seed and pollen samples, allowing experts to trace the history of vegetation and food on the site over a thousand years.

Accessibility

Previously, the only access to the court building was via long flights of external stone steps. By relocating the main entrance to the new atrium with its lifts, the new works have ensured that most public and staff areas are now fully universally accessible - insofar as a protected structure allows. The courtrooms themselves have been redesigned to be accessible to anyone with mobility difficulties - witnesses, jurors, legal practitioners or members of the public. The courtrooms also have been equipped with induction loops to aid people with hearing difficulties.

Project leaders

On behalf of the Board I wish to extend warm congratulations to the OPW architects - especially its project architect Gerard Bourke - conservation architects Bluett O'Donoghue, and to the main contractor, Michael McNamara & Co.

Courts Service modernisation programme

The finished project that you see around you here today is in keeping with the progressive 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 has 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 many other venues receiving upgrades or major maintenance works as well.

In parallel with the programme for the modernisation of the court building there has been a continuous programme of improving court rules, procedures and practices by the judiciary with the support of the Courts Service in order to adapt them to the new and greater demands being made of the courts and achieve greater efficiencies.

Changed times

There is no doubting we are in changed times, organisationally, economically and culturally. The Ireland of today is a lot different from 20 or 30 years ago. The population increase - particularly in urban areas has brought increased demands for court services in many counties. Demographic, social and infrastructural changes are also a factor in deciding the future shape of Districts and Circuit court services: increases in commercial activity and disputes, increased access to transport, and improved and increased use of roads are other issues which influence plans.

The dynamic pace of our courthouse refurbishment programme in recent years will inevitably be curtailed in the current economic climate. The continued implementation of our building programme will necessarily be more focused on venues where there is the greatest need and demand.

In this contemporary social 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 have been approved by the Circuit Court Rules Committee. A procedural scheme has also been prepared for case progression of litigation generally in the High Court.

The structure of the constitutional courts, which are designated as the judicial organ of government, has remained essentially the same since 1922 and certainly since 1937. The proposed establishment of a court of appeal in civil cases is a necessary and vital prerequisite to adapting the judicial organ of State to efficiently meet the needs and demands of the mo dern environment in which they function.

Similarly, 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 Kilkenny today.

Our thanks

All involved are to be congratulated on this fine building, whose completion owes further thanks to the assigned judges of the Circuit and District, Her Honour Judge Buttimer and Judge William Harnett, County Registrar Mary Enright; to the Chief Clerk of the Circuit Court Mairead O’Dwyer and of the District Court Liam Nolan and their staff - all of whom co-operated with patience, awaiting the completion of this worthwhile project.

I would also like to thank the CEO of the Courts Service Brendan Ryan and Paul Burns Head of Infrastructure Services who has 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. Michael Haugh, Assistant Principal Architect of the OPW played a major role in this project and we are grateful for his input. We are also very grateful to our local regional manager Gerry Nugent 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 continuous support for our modernisation programme since our establishment ten years ago.

I would like to conclude by emphasising how great a pleasure and honour it is for me, my judicial colleagues and fellow members of the Board to share with everyone here this special occasion marking another key point in the history and heritage of Kilkenny.