Croke Park is to be used for holding criminal trials during the first three months of 2021, in a deal with the GAA worth €437,000.
Conference facilities in the State's largest stadium are to be used by the Courts Service to provide rooms suitable for court hearings where the number of parties involved – lawyers, jurors, witnesses and others – would exceed the numbers that could be safely hosted inside most regular courtrooms, or for trials expected to last longer than usual.
As well as the rental costs, the use of the facility will cost a further estimated €302,000 when catering, security, and ICT costs are factored in, a Courts Service spokesman said.
The Courts Service and the GAA have worked on arranging suitable and safe facilities for those who are required to appear before the courts, practitioners who might work there, judges, staff, members of the Irish Prison Service, and members of An Garda Síochána, the spokesman said.
The new court facility will allow for three courts to sit, and it is planned to provide up to 200 court-sitting days during the agreement, which runs from January to March. The initiative is part of the plan to ensure as much court business as possible can continue safely during the pandemic.
Angela Denning, chief executive of the service, has spoken on a number of occasions about the difficulty of finding non-court buildings where jury trials can be held safely, in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The contract with Croke Park was signed by Ms Denning and Mark Dorman, head of stadium at Croke Park.
In sourcing suitable venues outside its own estate, the service has very specific requirements which must be met in order to run hearings safely, particularly the need for different routes of access and egress for the different court users, the spokesman said.
A team involving health and safety, operations, ICT and facilities management has been involved in assessing venues that might be suitable for court hearings, he said.
“We have been challenged across the country to try and facilitate criminal trials, in suitable and safe locations, amidst our responsibilities to keep courts operational and staff, the judiciary, jurors and court users safe,” said Ms Denning.
Outside Dublin the service has being using 12 non-court venues, and feedback from jurors and others has been very positive, she said.
Mr Dorman said it was appropriate that Croke Park, a “great national institution”, should be used as a vital support for the democratic functioning of the country.
The stadium, he said, is “not unused to great adversarial battles”.
As well as the 12 trial centres outside Dublin already in operation, the Courts Service had plans to add two more, in Sligo and Monaghan, in 2021.
Virtual court hearings
During the period between April and December of this year, the Courts Service organised 2,100 virtual court hearings, which in turn facilitated thousands of motions, mentions, callovers and lists being heard, as well as full hearings, the spokesman said.
It also facilitated 10,754 video calls from courts to prisons during the period from March to November , a quadrupling of the previous year's figures, and a further measure designed to reduce contacts and movements, in the context of the pandemic.