Court staff warn of safety threat over new duties
COURT clerks have warned they are being placed in danger by attempts to make them serve notices about unpaid fines to defendants appearing on unrelated matters.
New computer software can now identify whether people appearing in the dock have defaulted on previous court fines.
Notices for hearings were delivered by police or the dedicated Fine Chasing Team in the past but, due to budget cuts, clerks have been told to hand them over to defendants in court during separate hearings for a wide range of criminal charges - including assaults.
Clerks have objected that such interactions expose them to additional safety risks in the courthouse and also leave them vulnerable to angry confrontation by disgruntled offenders outside in the street.
They argue that it will see them going from being regarded as a purely administrative part of the court apparatus to active pursuers of offenders.
The Department of Justice confirmed that "none of the functions undertaken by NICTS (Northern Ireland Court and Tribunal Service) are covered by insurance" and any time off for injury or distress suffered as a result of assault, abuse or threats falls under "the NICS (Northern Ireland Civil Service) Inefficiency Sickness Absence Policy and appropriate action will be taken".
It did not rule out taking disciplinary action against court staff when they take time off after a work-related assault or threat.
A Court Service spokesman said it had been trialling the process.
"The NICTS has developed a mechanism using computer software to identify repeat offenders who have not previously paid court fines in full," he said.
"The mechanism allows for the product of a list of defendants appearing before a criminal court on a particular day who have outstanding magistrates' court monetary penalties which have gone into default and have a related unserved fine default notice.
"By identifying these individuals, in instances where the defendant attends the court in person the NICTS are able to serve the fine default hearing notice which will enable the enforcement of these outstanding monetary penalties to progress.
"The pilot initially commenced in Coleraine court office on June 25 2015, this was then extended to two further court offices (Limavady and Derry) on July 22 and September 9 respectively and ran up until November 30."
Justice minister David Ford admitted to the assembly there had been no consultation with clerks before the trial began but "having identified this, the NICTS has been actively engaged with Nipsa representatives and the matter is the subject of ongoing discussion".
Nipsa representative Ryan McKinney said it was "symptomatic of all the major cuts happening within court service".
"The reduction in the number of court houses is putting pressure on the staff remaining in the service," he said.
"We are in the process of negotiating a resolution."
A DoJ spokeswoman said it is working with the union "to explore concerns raised by some of their members over safety and additional duties" but hopes to bring in the new working practices "shortly at all court venues".
She said the Justice Bill "will provide for a number of more fundamental reforms to the system for collecting and enforcing fines" including deductions from benefits and earnings, which will "substantially reduce the number of cases".