Justice Minister Naomi Long announced today that the contract for the Nightingale courts and tribunals venue at the International Convention Centre (ICC) Belfast has been renewed for another three months.
As work continues to reduce the backlog of cases built up prior to and during the pandemic, Minister Long confirmed the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS) has taken up the option to extend the contract to use the ICC as a Covid-safe venue.
Minister Long said: “The ICC Belfast has played a crucial role in ensuring that our courts have been able to operate safely in the city for all court users.
“The venue has enabled NICTS to ensure that inquests can go ahead safely with in-person and hybrid hearings that deploy courtroom technology.
“Juror assembly has taken place in the venue. Consultation spaces for lawyers and their clients attending court have been available since March offering the chance for parties to resolve disputes before court proceedings take place. Back office staff in NICTS have also moved into the building.
“Later this month, the Small Claims Court and the Appeals Service will hold hearings for the first time there."
I am delighted such an important asset, as the ICC Belfast undoubtedly is, has been put to use in this way and I am grateful to its leadership team and staff who have not only provided the venue but who have worked very closely and effectively with NICTS, the judiciary and the legal profession to provide a safe space for courts and tribunals users.
The contract will run until the end of June 2021, after which the requirements will be reviewed.
The Minister noted that work was also continuing to increase the number of Crown Court venues, two additional adapted courtrooms opening in Laganside Courts in Belfast and another due for completion to mid-April.
On completion of adaptations to a further courtroom in mid-April, Laganside Courts will be able to accommodate up to five jury trials – three of which may be multi-defendant.
Three further Crown Court venues are also due in to come into operation after Easter in Dungannon, Antrim and Newry.
The Minister said: “Considerable work has taken place across the justice system to ensure our courts and tribunals have been able to function and to start to get near the position we were in before the pandemic struck.
“Prior to lockdown, there were 8.000 criminal cases in the court system which rose to 12,800 when court operations were significantly limited during the initial phase of the pandemic.
“The most recent real time management information indicates that that figure now stands at around 10,500 cases which is a significant achievement.
“With the reopening of more courts, there have been more cases disposed by the courts than received and the caseload has reduced.
However the deployment of courtroom technology to facilitate remote and hybrid court and tribunal hearings has played a significant role as well and as we modernise our courts and tribunals system, we will absorb the operational lessons of the pandemic and retain best practice.
“As the situation around Covid continues to evolve, NICTS will continue to work closely with the judiciary, with tribunal panel members and public health bodies to assess the implications for all its operations and to make sure all activity at the Nightingale venue and its properties can be conducted safely.”
ICC Belfast, Waterfront Hall and Ulster Hall’s chief executive Julia Corkey said: We are pleased to continue our support of the NICTS in its back office, courts and tribunals operations.
Thanks to the collaborative approach taken by both teams, the Nightingale venue has been running smoothly and solid progress has been made towards the reducing the backlog of cases in a Covid secure way.