Scottish court cuts will compromise justice, say legal activists

By staff writers
June 4, 2013

Lawyers and legal justice campaigners have held a demonstration outside the Scottish Parliament over the proposed closure of ten sheriff courts.

More than 50 people took part in the protest at Holyrood on a sunny morning. But the mood was one of shared determination to challenge measures which critics say could seriously restrict justice for local people.

The East Lothian Faculty of Procurators organised the demonstration. It was timed to coincide with Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill’s evidence to the Justice Committee on changes put forward by the Scottish Court Service and accepted by the Scottish Government.

There is broad consensus across the legal profession -- including solicitors, advocates and sheriffs (judges) -- that these closures will significantly impede access to justice in Scotland. Some argue that they may actually increase costs by £500,000

Scottish Legal News reports that the Scottish Court Service is seeking to save £4.5 million from its revenue budget and and additional £6.4 million from its capital budget in the period 2011/12 to 2014/15.

Solicitor Angela Craig, who has been spearheading the campaign in Haddington, disputed that the closure of her court will save money, and said the key issue was access to justice.

Even the SCS admits that the closures are “stark”. It nevertheless claims that the cuts are “proportionate”. But opponents say that there is clear evidence that they will effect local people and those with less money or access to transport disproportionately.

They disagree strongly with Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill’s claims, repeated today, that the ten sheriff's courts are "outdated" and "not fit for the twenty-first century", saying that a proper impact assessment is needed.

The main concerns are that the plans will slow down proceedings, increase costs, and compromise "justice for all".

Proportionately, they will hit vulnerable groups in the same kind of way as the serious cuts in legal aid being implemented by the Westminster government on England and Wales, one lawyer claimed to Ekklesia today.

The Sheriffs’ Association has described the SCS and Scottish Government proposals as “fundamentally flawed”.

The Law Society of Scotland has warned that the changes and cutbacks “seriously threaten access to justice”.

The sheriff courts marked out for closure are Dornoch, Duns, Kirkcudbright, Peebles, Rothesay, Arbroath, Cupar, Dingwall, Haddington and Stonehaven.

The business from the courts due for closure to be transferred to neighbouring sheriff court districts, but some people will have to travel many miles to get to them, with delays and problems "almost unavoidable" say protesters.

The protest was non-party political, though one Labour Party group sought to use the occasion to attack the governing Scottish National Party. When approached, they bluntly refused to discuss whether this was appropriate or helpful to the legal justice cause.

A similar process of court closures is ongoing in England and Wales, with 142 courts – mainly magistrates’ – shut since 2010. Additional cuts to the Ministry of Justice budget for 2015-16 were confirmed last week, so announcement of further closures is expected.

In addition, UK Justice Secretary Chris Grayling is said to be considering privatising the English and Welsh court system, with reports that hedge funds and other investors may be encouraged to bid for contracts with the prospect of generous returns.

[Ekk/3]

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