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Tumbledown Bridewell courts ‘not fit for purpose’ say lawyers
Family law practitioners Joan O’Mahony, Keith Walsh and Helen Coughlan at the Bridewell Pic: Derek Owens

17 Oct 2019 / courts Print

Tumbledown Bridewell courts ‘not fit for purpose’

Hard-pressed family law practitioners have pleaded with the Government to address the tumble-down court conditions in which they must work.

The ‘Dickensian’ conditions at the Bridewell, in Dublin’s Chancery Street, have been slammed by lawyers who say they must carry out sensitive client consultations in what is, effectively, a builder’s yard, surrounded by noise and debris.

The roof collapsed in on the Victorian-era courts on 31 July, causing extensive damage.

When the new legal year started on 7 October, the courthouses were scaffolded, with builders onsite and several sections out of action, including client consultation rooms and storage areas for legal files.

The toilets downstairs in the Chancery courts were also flooded, blocked and dirty. 

On Monday, 22 cases were listed for hearing.

“The childcare courts at the Bridewell are not fit for purpose,” according to solicitor Keith Walsh, who is chair of the Law Society’s Child & Family Law Committee.

Unclean

“They are unclean, unsafe, and a stain on the justice system,” he told Gazette.ie this morning.

“Parents, lawyers, witnesses, court staff and judges are involved in the most sensitive childcare cases in conditions which Charles Dickens would condemn as unsafe and unworkable, but he would at least recognise the courts as dating from his era,” he said.

He pleaded with Courts Service bosses and the Justice minister to visit the Chancery Street courts to see the conditions in which the most important cases in the justice system – those dealing with the welfare of vulnerable children – are being heard.

“They could not fail to be appalled by what they would see,” said Keith Walsh.  

He described the conditions as “unsafe and unacceptable”. The 19th century Bridewell courts were designed primarily to deal with criminal cases.

Because of an accommodation squeeze, two years ago the old-style facilities were pressed into service to house the childcare courts.

Stopgap

This stopgap measure was put in place pending the development of the Hammond Lane site, earmarked for a purpose-built, family law complex.

The Hammond Lane development is currently stalled as financial issues are hammered out between the Courts Service and the Department of Justice.

Walsh says the ‘collateral damage’ from these delays is that public childcare cases, taken through the Health Board or Tusla, are now being heard in inappropriate surroundings.

“The short-term solution is that the Courts Service would commit sufficient resources to the Chancery Street courts to make them fit for purpose, and to ensure that they are safe places to work in, and to visit,” said Walsh.

Solution

“The longer-term solution requires the Courts Service and the Department of Justice to put aside their differences, and to work on an enduring solution to the lack of adequate facilities and structures for family law both in Dublin and outside Dublin.

“These cases are both highly sensitive and complex, and all parties involved deserve reasonable premises within which to work that are at least fit for purpose and are free from serious health-and-safety issues,” he said.

A Courts Service spokesman said that the Chancery Street courts date from the 1860s, and that extensive repairs were required to the roof this summer.

Scale

“Due to the scale of the works required, and the desire to minimise disruption to the court and court users, this work is being undertaken in phases, and mostly during the summer vacation periods,” he said.  

“The completion of repair works has, unfortunately, been slightly delayed due to additional and unforeseen repairs being required to ensure the safety of those using the building,” he said.

This only became apparent following heavy rainfall in late September. Further work to the roof will be required during 2020, the Courts Service has confirmed. 

Security

An enhanced security screening area has been set up in the prefab to the rear of the courthouse. This required considerable alterations, but was operational from this week and provides a much greater level of security, the spokesman said. 

“Works to complete the remaining elements of the new security infrastructure, including the installation of turnstiles, new gates and ramps, will be ongoing until the end of November. 

“The majority of this work will take place out-of-hours so as to minimise disruption to courts and court users,” he said.

The Courts Service says it regrets the disruption and inconvenience, but is working towards a much safer environment for all users of the Bridewell building. 

It says it acknowledges the inadequacies of the Chancery Street court accommodation, and continues to engage with the Department of Justice to ensure that the Hammond Lane family law centre proceeds as quickly as possible.

Gazette Desk
Gazette.ie is the daily legal news site of the Law Society of Ireland