Yesterday's report about the future shape of Scotland's court services has little to do with modernisation and reform and everything to do with accommodating huge budget cuts.
The Scottish Court Services (SCS) is being obliged to cope with a reduction that amounts to 20% in real terms. And their capital budget is being slashed from £20 million to £4m.
The presence of a sheriff or Justice of the Peace court in small towns across Scotland has always been something of a mixed blessing. Crowds of sometimes rowdy people blocking the pavements outside courts can be intimidating to those passing by. On the other hand, courts provide jobs for a range of employees from clerks to cleaners and they sustain local businesses such as sandwich shops and fast food outlets. Both are important economic drivers in already hard-pressed local communities such as Dornoch and Cupar. Duns, Kirkcudbright, Peebles, Rothesay, Dingwall, Arbroath, Haddington and Stonehaven also stand to lose their sheriff courts.
In fact, there is much more at stake than this. As Lord Carloway said: "It remains important in Scotland that the individual should have access to the courts in order that he can find redress for wrongs perpetrated against him." Though he was referring to civil cases, the same applies to the criminal law. Both will be affected by these closures. Whatever happened to the idea of "local justice"?
Justice must be not only accessible and swift but seen to be done. It is wrong to confuse proximity with accessibility. The argument that there is another sheriff court in a nearby community is irrelevant if victims, witnesses and indeed the accused, who may depend on public transport, cannot get there in time for the commencement of proceedings. The result is likely to be cases delayed, incurring public expense, rather than economies.
There are also issues about the capacity of the remaining courts to take on an estimated 10,000 extra cases. This applies particularly at a time when the value of civil cases that can be heard at sheriff courts is being hiked from £5000 to £150,000 to relieve pressure on the Court of Session.
Nor is it in the public interest that justice is dispatched out of sight, somewhere where interested parties are less likely to attend and beyond the normal beat of local newspaper reporters.
Despite numerous objections to the original proposals, they appear to have been adopted more or less lock, stock and barrel.
The Scottish Government's justice strategy named "access to justice" as a priority. It is difficult to see how these proposals square with that. The location, suitability and number of court buildings in Scotland were certainly in need of review and some rationalisation makes sense in the current climate. Some courts are already operating only three days of the week and handle low volumes of business. Even so, the size of the surrounding population and the accessibility of genuine alternatives should also be weighed.
The final decision rests with the Scottish Government. It is not too late for ministers to reconsider some of these closures.
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