“The Liberator” Daniel O’Connell’s portrait hangs in the atrium of the 19th century courthouse in Tralee, a man who displayed a legendary talent for swaying juries in Co Kerry during his legal career.
He would find it hard to do so today in the imposing 1830s building on Ashe Street (originally Nelson Street after the admiral), fronted by guns honouring the fallen of Tralee in wars in India and the Crimea.
Since March 2020, no jury trials have been held in Kerry, and the Department of Justice favours moving to a greenfield site rather than trying to refurbish the courthouse, though other State officials believe otherwise.
The building shows signs of age. It does not have enough court rooms. Jury rooms are small and cramped, while there is little space to hold prisoners. Offices, meanwhile, have been abandoned because of their poor condition.
The need for a modern court complex in the north Co Kerry town has been simmering for almost two decades, partly held back by local differences about where it should go.
The Department of Defence-owned barracks at Ballymullen was once considered, while the former Denny bacon factory site near the Dominican abbey on the western side of Tralee, donated by Kerry Group, is currently favoured.
However, there is concern held by some locally that the whole character of the so-called Island of Geese lands, which date back to medieval times, will be overwhelmed by prison vans and court business.
In the meantime "justice delayed is justice denied", says criminal solicitor Pádraig O'Connell, who is increasingly frustrated at facing travel to Limerick and Cork for trials for another year.
Currently 150 cases involving Kerry-based people await trial. Some go back years. It now takes a Kerry case 24 months to make the Circuit Criminal Court. Tralee had 12 jury trials in 2019, many lasting weeks.
The Covid-19 pandemic has played its part in the delays, but the lack of a decision about where Tralee’s court building should be has been a major contributing factor, says O’Connell.
"All we want is a functioning court. I don't care where it is located as long as it is in Kerry," says the solicitor, who has suggested using some of the HSE-owned land on the N22 bypass in Killarney to resolve the issue.
Sinn Féin TD Pa Daly, a busy solicitor who practised throughout Kerry before he was elected in 2019, believes, like other solicitors in the town, that the Courts Service is being intransigent in its desire for a new building.
“In my view the Courts Service are trying to wear us down to their point of view. The only work since the 1990s has been a lick of paint in the kitchen for judges,” said the Sinn Féin TD.
Wheelchair ramps could easily have been put in to make the building accessible, he claimed, and has called for an architectural review of the heritage building to be carried out.
Moving the courthouse to the Denny site – better known as the Island of Geese – does little to help, he argues, since it limits what Kerry County Council can do with the rest of the land there.
In 2018 the then minister for justice Charlie Flanagan said €18 million was available to ensure Kerry had a proper court. "There's no additional benefit to the town in moving the courthouse from one street to another," says Mr Daly.
If Kerry cases needing a jury are not being heard in Kerry then they are struggling to be heard anywhere else too. Just five weeks have been set aside in Limerick City courts to deal with urgent matters – held before Limerick juries, not those from Kerry.
Matters came to a head earlier this month at the only large Circuit Court criminal sitting in Tralee this term. Since summer dozens of cases have been put back for scheduling in January.
Then prosecuting barrister Tom Rice spoke of an elderly Co Kerry man in a historic child abuse case who has been deemed mentally fit to stand trial but who is physically unable to travel to and from Limerick every day.
The case was before the court for mention, to deal with a medical report and a date for listing. The man is in his 80s and there is a history of cancer and other ailments, Mr Rice told the court.
The case involves 28 counts and concerns allegations of fondling, masturbation and pornography involving a child under the age of 14 in the 1970s. The case is ready for trial.
“In March 2020 there was a dramatic change. Since March 2020 no trial has been held in the courthouse in Tralee. The DPP is anxious trials can take place in Kerry,” said Mr Rice.
“The complainant had the courage to come forward and every opportunity should be afforded by the prosecution system to get that trial before a jury,” Mr Rice told the court.
Defending barrister Katie O’Connell said it was clear her client, who has pleaded innocent, could not travel daily to Limerick. “Everyone is being disadvantaged by the fact no trials are being held in Kerry,” Ms O’Connell said.
Judge Colin Daly adjourned the case until January. In the meantime he has sought information from the Courts Service as to when jury trials are to recommence in Tralee.
The Department of Justice says the Ashe Street building does not meet today’s standards. “A courthouse with four courtrooms and other facilities is needed to deal with current and future demand in Tralee,” it said.
That scale of activity cannot be accommodated there, it says. “This will require a building significantly larger than the existing courthouse. The Island of Geese site, which is in council ownership, is the preferred option.”
Visiting the building in August, Green Party Minister of State Malcolm Noonan noted the successful restoration of Killarney's courthouse. Meanwhile, the Greens' Kerry branch says substantial local support for refurbishment exists.
Mr Noonan has now asked the Office of Public Works (OPW) to carry out a new review to see how it might bring the courthouse up to standard, according to Kerry Green Party chairman Anluan Dunne.
“We have highly talented architects skilled in heritage conservation who can produce a design to satisfy the needs of the Courts Service, legal professionals and the public. Let us lay out the challenge and invite proposals,” he said.
Meanwhile, the view of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage at its highest levels is that the assessment of the courthouse “would be a matter for the Courts Service itself (as owners of the property) or possibly for the OPW”.
However, officials in the department’s built heritage section hold a different view to the Courts Service and the Department of Justice about what should happen, believing that refurbishment “should be the first consideration”.
With climate change this is no longer just a cultural issue but also a mitigation one too that favours the reuse of existing cultural resources and their "embodied energy, craftsmanship and materials", said Nicola Matthews, senior architect.
In a submission to the Dáil Justice Committee in September the Environment official said that moving courthouses out of town – particularly if it is to the outskirts – can have a detrimental impact on town centres.
She said court buildings were an important part of the State’s architectural heritage, often built by the best architects of the day with the best of traditional craftsmanship and high quality materials.