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Northern Ireland Court Service – PFI: The Laganside Courts

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.

"This was an early PFI deal and the new courts have only been up and running for just over a year. It is apparent to us that the project is an example of imaginative and successful design of a building that is providing a vastly superior service to its users than the nineteenth century Crumlin Road Courthouse, good no doubt in its time, that preceded it. However, there are improvements to be made in how performance is managed now the courts are open for business."

Sir John Bourn

Notes for Editors


  1. The Northern Ireland Court Service, a Department of the Lord Chancellor, provides administrative support to the Judiciary in the conduct of courts business and suitable accommodation where proceedings can be heard. The Belfast Courts handle the bulk of business in the criminal and civil courts.
  2. In February 1999 the Court Service let a PFI contract to Consul Services Ltd to design, build, finance and operate a 16 court complex (now known as Laganside Courts). The contract is for 25 years at a cost of £40 million. This was the first major accommodation PFI contract signed in Northern Ireland and the first of its kind to reach financial close in the court sector in the United Kingdom.
  3. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website at Hard copies can be obtained from The Stationery Office on 0845 702 3474.
  4. The Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir John Bourn, is the head of the National Audit Office which employs some 800 staff. He and the NAO are totally independent of Government. He certifies the accounts of all Government departments and a wide range of other public sector bodies; and he has statutory authority to report to Parliament on the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which departments and other bodies have used their resources.

PN: 43/03