IT WAS a vaguely uncomfortable situation. The media were in the dock – literally as opposed to figuratively – and the politicians were in the jury box.
There was more than one judge on the top bench and if any of us put a foot wrong or forgot to silence our mobile phones, Chief Justice Frank Clarke, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan and Mayor Stephen Keary were alongside the local judges with an insider’s view of the city’s new courtroom.
Space was at a premium, with the entire legal and most of the political communities anxious to witness the official opening of the bright new court complex in Mulgrave Street.
Former Finance Minister Michael Noonan had a look of a man who was pleased with his day’s work and not surprising as it was during his tenure that the €26 million was earmarked for the building.
The new complex is without doubt a far better place to do business than the old District Court.
There’s no grubby misspelled graffiti speculating as to the marital status of the parents of Gardaí and the toilets are sparkling.
Jury members have their reception room where they will be spared having to eyeball an accused unless they’re in the dock and those who have to give evidence against dangerous criminals have their own secure rooms.
There’s a special victim support room for those about to relive hugely traumatic events in their lives. Even the media have a designated bolt-hole.
The complex houses the biggest courtroom in Ireland, to cope with District Court sittings. Gone are the days of defendants, Gardaí and others with court business trooping down the steps of the District Court, to the bemusement of tourists making their way to St Mary’s Cathedral or King John’s Castle.
More than one was treated to the two fingered salute by some hoodie-clad thug who mistook holiday snappers for media photographers.
As Chief Justice Clarke said in his speech, “in the past, our court buildings were designated more to intimidate than to accommodate. In our new buildings, we are very conscious of the need to invite entry”.
Not everyone was quite so happy with that invitation on Monday.
The Circuit Court was sitting with Judge Tom O’Donnell passing sentence on a number of cases.
But the weather was still playing havoc and some legal representatives couldn’t make it in to court.
One man whose brief was missing was told his case would have to be put back.
“I have everything I need – I’m ready to rock and roll,” he told the Judge. Judge O’Donnell explained there would be neither rocking nor rolling as the brief was absent and the court could not sit in the afternoon.
“This is a kangaroo court – put that in the papers,” he shouted at the media as he was led away.
Kangaroos aside, it was an historic occasion in more ways than one.
The Supreme Court sat for the first time in Limerick and only the second time it has convened outside Dublin.
Outlining the role of the Supreme Court, Mr Justice Clarke said that as it moves into a more Constitutional role “It’s vital that the court is seen as being important to all of the people”.
Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan conceded that a court can be an intimidating place where life-changing decisions occur. The court deals with many different, complex and sensitive issues that affect people’s lives and so to have a local courthouse, a place that is accessible, modern and user-friendly, is really important.
“Facilities such as a vulnerable witness suite, victim support room, legal practitioners room, enhanced custody facilities, jury reception room, media room and consultation rooms are a welcome addition at Limerick Courthouse,” he added.
Last year, more than 20,950 matters across 408 court sitting days were dealt with by the District Court sitting in Limerick City while the Circuit Court dealt with 1,605 cases across 216 court sitting days.
What had not changed, despite the new setting, was the sad and demoralising parade of defendant after defendant being described as a drug addict or an alcoholic, having committed serious crimes under the influence of one or the other or both.
The new courtroom will certainly never be short of business.
More about crime and court here.