YESTERDAY was not a proud day for Scottish democracy.
The Scottish Government's Justice Committee had an opportunity to reconsider proposals to shut 17 sheriff and justice of the peace courts across Scotland, effectively centralising the delivery of justice. Following hundreds of objections to the plans and a number of well-argued campaigns by constituents, MSPs would have been fully justified in sending the matter back to parliament for reconsideration.
A number of these courts are in old county towns such as Haddington and Peebles where justice has been dispensed for centuries and where the courts are integral to the local community. But, rather than making a stand for local justice, MSPs simply voted along party lines.
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SNP members, plus independent John Finnie (formerly SNP), all voted for the closures, despite several having actively supported and encouraged campaigns for the retention of courts in their own constituencies. This includes committee convenor Christine Grahame, who fought to save Peebles Sheriff Court. Returning the issue to the chamber would have forced a rethink in response to the arguments raised during the public consultation. Nobody is suggesting that the Scottish justice system should be preserved in aspic and some rationalisation is certainly justified.
However, to present the closures as a necessary part of a modernisation plan is disingenuous. These proposals are entirely driven by the need to accommodate a 20% revenue cut imposed by the Scottish Government on the Scottish Court Service (SCS), in addition to a reduction in the capital budget from £20m to £4m. It is equally disingenuous to suggest that these plans have been welcomed and endorsed by Lord Gill, Scotland's most senior judge. Given the budget imposed on SCS, he had little choice.
In the context of the Scottish Government's annual budget, the sums involved are small. As The Herald has argued throughout this debate, good justice should be swift, accessible and seen to be done. So far as is possible an accused should be tried by a jury from the local area. It is hard to see how moving proceedings from Dingwall to Inverness or Haddington to Edinburgh, for instance, is going to improve matters, especially when some courts already have lengthy waiting lists.
Police face extra travelling time and expense, as do other witnesses and members of the public, especially if reliant of the vagaries of public transport. The result is likely to be more non-appearance warrants and costly adjournments.
There are wider policy implications too. Some of these towns are already struggling economically and courts provide both employment and income for local businesses. There seems to be an inability to consider such issues in the round. For many communities, this decision means the end of local justice. It is a pity that, given a choice between supporting their constituents and toeing the party line, some MSPs chose the latter.