It was reported last week that the Scottish Government has accepted the recommendations (PDF) of the Scottish Court Service on April 9 regarding the closure of ten sheriff courts and a shake-up of justice of the peace courts.
I am a little late to this party and I did not respond to the consultation, so I proffer three observations in the knowledge that I am open to the criticism that I should have done so sooner. That being the case, MSPs will get the chance to vote on these matters, so perhaps one or two of them them might see this blog and consider what I have to say.
Generally, I come from the standpoint that I think the closures are a bad idea.
Yes, there will be some cost savings relating to releasing old buildings from the maintenance budget, but equally there will be some cost implications (travel being one, albeit mitigated by increased usage of technology). I also appreciate there might be a drive towards alternative methods of business resolution. Standing that disclaimer, here are my three main issues with the proposals.
Access to justice
Access to justice can mean many things. Here, I mean it literally. Getting access to your day in court.
I have already alluded to technology and I acknowledge that I have video-conferenced with other locations in Scotland with a fair amount of success, but this might not always be a suitable option for vindicating rights or dealing with sensitive family law issues. On a related family law point, it is not too long ago that all Scottish residents had to go to Edinburgh for a divorce, rather than their local sheriff court. Whilst the stigma of a divorce action may not be so great in the present day, it is fair to say many people involved in such cases will feel sensitive about such issues and would rather not worry about taking extra time (and expense) to get to a more distant tribunal. Now, that local sheriff court might be disappearing.
This is what the analysis of consultation responses said about access to justice (at paragraph 1.17):
We recognise the strength of feeling expressed by respondents and we are fully satisfied that our recommendations meet the Judicial Principles for Provision of Access to Justice, allowing us to be able to provide services and facilities that are consistent with the standards of a modern system, capable of effectively supporting justice reforms that is affordable and contained within the reduced budget available to us.
The approach we are taking in the recommendations that follow allows us to preserve the essential judicial and staff resources to operate the system as a whole, and to allow future investment, particularly in facilities for jurors, victims and witnesses and in communication technology, to be targeted across a smaller group of buildings.
This is what the Law Society of Scotland say:
These court closures seriously threaten access to justice in many parts of Scotland and could lead to a long term decline in our cherished justice system. The changes will force many court users to travel further distances, at greater expense and with the result that access to justice is limited.
Local courts are an integral part of communities across Scotland and offer the opportunity to see justice done.
Vulnerable groups and people living in rural areas will be disproportionately affected by this decision; they may face excessive travel times and struggle to arrive in time for the start of a case. They may also have to share the same transport service with other parties to the case, such as witnesses and jurors.
We recognise the financial pressures facing the Scottish Court Service. However, we are concerned this closure programme will fail to even achieve the very limited significant financial savings planned.
Some of the remaining courts may find it difficult to cope with the level of additional business, which in turn could slow down proceedings and increase costs.
We believe that the closure of courts on this scale will damage access to justice. We hope that Members of the Scottish Parliament will be able to stop these closures from happening.
The Law Society response above acknowledges community vitality tangentially. Community empowerment and renewal is important to the Scottish Government. Why then are such key civic buildings being closed? The Federation of Small Businesses does not think it is a good idea. I asked the @CommEmpower Twitter account whether they thought it was a good idea. I have not yet had a reply.
Each sheriff court that closes will need to cascade its work somewhere. This was raised in an article by the former Sheriff Douglas Cusine in the Press and Journal on 13 April 2013, where he noted the integrated building sheriff court/police station at Stonehaven and the processes that were in place for dealing with family law cases that cannot be easily replicated elsewhere. Transferring all of that to Aberdeen without upheaval will be tricky, to say the least. Other non-Aberdonian examples are available, but only Alloa has been spared closure. This is what was noted of Alloa (at 8.4):
We remain of the view that, given the proximity of Alloa to Stirling and Falkirk, our proposal to close Alloa and move the solemn business to Falkirk and the summary and civil business to Stirling is consistent with our vision for a modern court service and aligned to the Judicial Principles on Access to Justice. However, until such time as additional capacity can be provided in Stirling or Falkirk, either by a reduction in business or creation of additional courtroom space, we do not propose the closure of Alloa at this time.
I have visited Alloa a surprising amount of times in recent years, attending conferences at Tullibody and football matches at Recreation Park. I got the train to the recently reopened railway station and saw a place that is doing its best to buck any trend of malaise that it might be accused of. As I understand it, Clackmannanshire Council is trying to take pride in Alloa (see my point on vitality above). That being said, the court’s stay of execution was based purely on pressures elsewhere. The bean-counting exercise remains the real concern. Alloa was saved for practicality and nothing else. Would it be churlish to think that this is what the exercise is actually about?
Irrespective of that question, it does show that practicality can and does matter and is perhaps the best way to frame any arguments to retain the threatened courts. That is why articles like that of the retired Sheriff Cusine (which I cannot find online) might be the best way to frame the argument, so if anyone has any more insight they can add on a practical level please comment below.
Over to the MSPs. If the #protestforjustice movement is anything to go by, I am not optimistic.