Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office, reported to Parliament today that the new Laganside Courts complex in Belfast, opened in February 2002, is delivering significant benefits.
The combination of Crown, County and Magistrates’ Courts has improved upon the previously dissipated nature of court provision in Belfast. Initial reactions from court users have been very positive and a preliminary review of throughput in the courts has indicated increased availability and efficiency.
Nevertheless, the Court Service did not undertake all the actions it might have prior to occupying the new complex. Performance monitoring was not fully operational and consequently there were only limited means by which performance against service standards could be measured.
The procurement of the £40 million PFI deal was handled well and the contract includes mechanisms which should help to protect value for money in the future. But there are limitations with the way availability and performance of the new building is reflected in payments to Consul. The Court Service negotiated a reduction in the annual charge from £4.2 million to £3.6 million for agreeing to limit the size of any abatement for non-availability or poor performance. The reduced annual charge includes fixed elements so that 56 per cent of the total amount would still be due, even if the entire building is out of action. In addition, deductions made if one of the Courts is unavailable are small. For instance, the non-availability of a standard Crown Courtroom would reduce the service payment by approximately £18 an hour.
Putting in place adequate arrangements to measure and manage performance took a back seat to getting the courts operational. As a result the Court Service was exposed to the risk that it might be paying in full for what was sub-standard service delivery, although there have been no significant examples of unavailability or poor performance to date. Some problems, such as water ingress, have been known about for some time but are not yet resolved. Although formal contract management arrangements are now in place, the Court Service must maintain a close watch on the performance of the new building and associated support services in the future.