BUSINESS leaders have warned that plans to close one in five sheriff courts across Scotland will deliver another blow to struggling high streets.
The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), which has 20,000 members in Scotland, has written to the Rt Hon Lord Gill, chairman of the Scottish Courts Service (SCS) board, arguing that the court estate reforms – which will also affect five Justice of the Peace courts – will damage footfall and hit jobs in the areas where the courts are due to close.
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Under the proposals, sheriff courts in Alloa, Arbroath, Cupar, Dingwall, Dornoch, Duns, Haddington, Kirkcudbright, Peebles, Rothesay and Stonehaven may shut. Justice of the peace courts in Annan, Coatbridge, Cumbernauld, Irvine and Motherwell are also marked for closure. The programme is likely to save £1.4 million a year.
SCS argues that since these courts employ relatively few people locally, the closures will have a limited economic impact.
However, the FSB contends that the passing trade generated by courts is very important to the local business community, especially retailers.
Andy Willox, FSB's Scottish policy convener, said: "As the FSB has argued for years, strong, vibrant town centres need a good mix of retailers and other businesses, together with public and private employers.
"Removing important local employers from town centres damages their long-term prospects.
"Often located on or close to high streets, closing these local courts will hit footfall and see the loss of well-paid public sector workers' spending power. This will put additional pressure on existing businesses, while making the area less attractive for inward investment."
He added: "The FSB is currently contributing to the Scottish Government's national review of town centres. It seems odd that the consultation on court closures closes before this group will have time to report."
SCS is carrying out a public consultation on proposals to close the courts. The deadline for responses to the consultation is noon on Friday, December 21.
Jury trials at sheriff courts could also be restricted under the reforms, with proceedings moved from 47 courts to 16 judicial centres to be created in larger towns.
SCS argues that the structure of Scotland's courts reflects the "social and economic needs of the Victorian age", and that it must also make a 20% cut in its operating budget by 2014/15.
The Law Society of Scotland has warned of a long-term decline in the quality of the Scottish justice system, and has called for a rethink on the number of courts earmarked for closure.
An SCS spokeswoman said: "Those courts proposed for closure have been identified due to their low volumes of court business and their proximity to other court buildings, which should reduce the impact their closure could be expected to have on the area."