With one in five sheriff courts across Scotland identified for possible closure in the review by the Scottish Court Service (SCS), it is clear that cost saving is the prime consideration.
With SCS due to lose £52.3 million from its budget over the next four years, closures are inevitable. The scale of the proposal, which would see the end of civil and criminal cases in 11 courts from Dingwall to Duns, raises serious questions about access to justice.
As the Scottish legal system undergoes major changes as a result of separate reviews of the civil courts, sheriff and jury trials and recommendations from Lord Carloway's report into criminal law and practice, it is timely that the number, location and suitability of court buildings should be examined.
It was logical, too, that the SCS review focused on courts with the lowest volume of business, sitting only three days a week, and those in smaller towns and within 20 miles of another court.
It is not only the closure of courts in towns with considerable surrounding population, such as Alloa, Arbroath, Stonehaven and Cupar, that is causing concern. The proposal to hold sheriff and jury trials in just 16 judicial centres in larger towns means that many of the remaining sheriff courts will be restricted to less serious cases.
This is a major change that calls into question the principle of access to justice, which the Scottish Government named as a priority in its recently published justice strategy.
The SCS report states that a number of courts are within reasonable travelling distance of another court. Ease of access, however, cannot be equated to distance. Many defendants, witnesses and members of the public are dependent on public transport and will have difficulty reaching a court in another town with no direct transport connection and may find the cost of travel prohibitive. The proposals for greater use of video links and online services must be built in from the beginning if the service is to be streamlined without a hitch. As the SCS points out, much of the current system remains rooted in 17th century practices.
As Lord Carloway has said in relation to civil law: "It remains important in Scotland that the individual should have ready access to the courts in order that he can find redress for wrongs perpetrated against him."
While justice must be accessible, it must also be seen to be done. Removing court proceedings from local communities risks the law operating out of sight. Not only are members of the public less likely to attend but if local papers do not extend their beat to the courts in other towns, there is a danger that cases will go unreported and an essential part of the process will be lost. These proposals, which are out for consultation, should not be the last word.
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