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Speeches

21/02/2011

Opening of Monaghan Courthouse

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


Minister, Mayor, Cathaoirleach, 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 town of Monaghan. 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 early 19th century with the demands and needs of Monaghan in the 21st century.

I would like to extend a particular welcome to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Brendan Smith T.D. 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 Cathaoirleach for his warm words of welcome.

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 Monaghan.

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. As James Hamilton, one of those founding fathers of the American Constitution, wrote, an independent judiciary under the Constitution would prove to be the "citadel of public justice and public security."

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.

The poet Patrick Kavanagh, who of course was a Monaghan man, referred to his native place as "… this corner of peace in a world of trouble". This building will, for the people of Monaghan, endure as a corner of justice and fairness for citizens in society in need of redress before it. 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.

The completion of this major project probably marks the end, for the foreseeable future, of major investment in the capital resources of the Courts Service for some time to come, given our current economic climate. Fortunately, over the last eleven years we have had a very important capital programme which represents wise investment that will endure for the benefit of society as a whole and the administration of justice in particular. With a few exceptions we now have a fine stock of buildings for court users which is also invaluable as part of our local and national architectural heritage.

The functioning of the administration of justice depends on far more than simply capital or building resources. It depends on services and personnel being available from day to day in the management, hearing and determination of cases before the courts which are vital to the citizens involved in them.

Every democracy depends on fully functioning courts to vindicate the rights of citizens and to protect them from the arbitrary use of powers by governments, legislatures or other state organisations. As I have stated the judicial system was put there by the people when they enacted our Constitution for the benefit of the people.

At the foundation of the State, and indeed on the adoption of the Constitution in 1937, great pride was taken and expressed that we would have our own independent judiciary. The records of the courts from those times to the present day bear testimony to the fact that a dedicated judiciary have fulfilled that role.

It is important, not for the members of the judiciary, but for all citizens that the judicial branch of government is supported and maintained in a fashion that enables it to effectively carry out its constitutional mandate of protecting and vindicating the rights of the people. The essential and minimum resources required by the judicial system have not always been allocated in a manner which would meet minimum standards met by democracies throughout the world. This was so even during the so-called good years, particularly when one has regard to the huge extra resources made available to other organs of State.

So far, with good management by the Courts Service, it has been possible to achieve cutbacks in budgetary expenditure on the courts which are necessary in these difficult times and at the same time ensure that court sittings are not affected. Even though expenditure limits must be respected for those reasons there is a vital need for some structural changes, such as the establishment of a Court of Appeal, and at least a strategic plan for enabling the courts to cope with the demands made of it by society today, even if the resources to implement such a plan in the short term are not available. An ad hoc or laissez faire approach, which has often characterised the manner in which support for the judicial functioning of the courts has been approached, ought not be allowed to persist. Otherwise it is the public at large or society as a whole will suffer through a weakening of one of the fundamental pillars in our constitutional form of government.

The old building and history

This Courthouse which is 2,037 square meters in size, is a five bay, three-story over basement protected structure of national and architectural importance. It was built with local stone in the Grecian style in 1829. It was reputedly designed by a Cork born architect Joseph Welland. The Courthouse occupies an important site in Monaghan town on the south side of Church Square. The building was largely destroyed by arson in 1981. Few original architectural features of any significance were salvaged. Consequently, the interior character of the building was lost during the 1985 restoration.

Works and facilities

This current refurbishment was completed with considerable attention given to the sandstone exterior of the building in an effort to restore it to its original condition. Three sets of main entrance doors have been re-instated in the front facade. The entrance foyer has been re-modelled and lined with limestone and has a floor area almost tripled in size. The large glazed atrium roof-light illuminates the principle circulation area which is dominated by the new main public staircase. The stairs are constructed in Irish oak, and now serve all floors. The basement area has been re-designed to provide secure holding rooms and designated Prison Service accommodation. All electrical, mechanical, security and fire services have been updated to comply with current legislation.

The preservation of this important historic building contributes not only to the townscape of Monaghan but also to our national heritage. The refurbished building provides three new, modern courtrooms and much improved facilities for all court users in Monaghan. As well as staff accommodation, offices, and a legal practitioners’ room, the facilities include consultation rooms which provide for the dignity and privacy of those who need to consult with their lawyers. Two of the courtrooms are large jury Courtrooms and the third serves as a Family Court. It will be possible to hold not only local District and Circuit hearings in the building but also hearings of the High Court and Central Criminal Court, if such need arises.

Accessibility

In the past major court buildings were designed more to intimidate than accommodate. In refurbishing such historic buildings the Courts Service is very conscious that they are made to openly invite entry and allow freedom of movement within. The installation of a new lift and careful design of public spaces ensures this building is universally accessible for public and staff. The courtrooms have also been redesigned to provide universal access for persons with mobility difficulties. New signage has also been designed with accessibility in mind and induction loops have been installed in the courtrooms for use by users of hearing aids.

Courts Service modernisation programme

The finished project you see 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 continued implementation of our building programme will necessarily be more focused on venues where there is the greatest need and demand.

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 Monaghan 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, His Honour Judge O’Hagan and Judge Sean MacBride, the County Registrar; the Chief Clerks of the Circuit Court and the District Court and the staff - all of whom have co-operated with patience, awaiting the completion of this valuable 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 go to the staff of the Estates and Buildings unit led by John Mahon and his predecessor Shay Kirk. Claire McGrath the Chairperson of the OPW, OPW architects Michael Haugh and John McMahon, with a special thanks to the project architect Sean Moylan - who played a major role in this project and we are grateful for his input. The main contractors Sisk and Company are to be congratulated for the success of the refurbishment. We are also very grateful to our local regional manager Paula Lyons and her 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 eleven 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 Monaghan.