There is no justice in SNP plans to close 26 courts – a decision that will a have a serious knock-on effect on the viability of our towns, writes Iain Gray
This week, justice secretary Kenny MacAskill laid orders in parliament to close ten – that is one in five – of Scotland’s sheriff courts and 16 justice of the peace courts.
My home town of Haddington will lose both. Two weeks ago, East Lothian lawyers called a meeting of parties interested in fighting the closures. These meetings can sometimes get heated. In this case, as participants took turns to produce more and more evidence of what a boneheaded decision this is, they just grew increasingly bemused, baffled and bewildered at why it was even being considered.
Some of the courts being closed do have limited business taking place, but the lawyers showed that Haddington is a busy, full-time court and that figures justifying closure omit 600 summary applications, 2,750 summary criminal complaints, sequestrations and a 70 per cent increase in Adult with Incapacity applications.
The court also plays a key role in overseeing community sentences and drug treatment orders, where local knowledge of the offender can be crucial.
The lawyers pointed out that family actions require up to 12 hearings, for which parents and children dealing with family breakdown will have to travel to Edinburgh – at significantly greater cost and inconvenience – if the closures go ahead. They produced figures showing that Edinburgh will struggle with the extra work, and cases will take much longer. As East Lothian has the fastest growing population in Scotland, this can only get worse.
Our JPs made it clear that most will resign if they are not sitting locally, and new recruits will be hard to find. That means police officers will struggle to find a JP to sign warrants, although the truth is that police officers will struggle to find the time to police our streets at all, between travelling to and from the court in Edinburgh and waiting around there.
Haddington Citizens Advice Bureau explained, with figures, how much more difficult its clients will find it to manage problems of debt, rent arrears or small claims without a local court and its advice. Not so long ago, Mr MacAskill chose Haddington CAB to launch a new legal advice service, and praised CAB’s “in-court” advice service. That just seems ironic now, but when the court adviser jobs go, so will valuable help for vulnerable people.
East Lothian council is also angry. It is working hard to reinvigorate Haddington town centre, and re-establish it as a proper county town. A development trust has been formed; a town centre manager is to be appointed. The market in this historic town has recently been successfully restarted. Vacant council offices have been turned into a one-stop employability centre, and the precious county archives have been brought home to a beautiful new museum and library. Now the justice secretary is reaching into the very heart of the town and snuffing out one of its key institutions.
Law firms say they may close local offices, or withdraw from legal aid work rendered unviable by travel costs and the problems of scheduling in the bigger court. Businesses – from newsagents to sandwich shops – will also suffer and the town will be left with a large empty unsellable building in the middle of the unfortunately named Court Street. East Lothian council projects a loss to the local economy of £300,000, but the damage to local pride and morale will be incalculable.
Finally, the meeting heard from a forensic accountant commissioned to examine the potential savings claimed by the Court Service. That, after all, is the whole purpose of these closures, driven by a cut in the courts budget. He concluded that the actual saving would be no more than £47,000 per annum, but all this and more would be simply pushed on to other public budgets such as legal aid, social workers’ travel costs or police officers’ time and travel.
Then he produced a bombshell – figures showing that court sittings in Edinburgh cost far more than Haddington, and by closing the cheaper court in favour of the expensive one the whole sorry exercise will cost the Scottish Court Service £544,420 more each year, not less.
So, this closure will benefit no-one who uses the court, will undermine the economy of one of Scotland’s oldest towns, and will actually increase costs. I have no doubt that all of this is true not just of Haddington, but also many of the other similar towns affected.
My constituents cannot get their heads around a decision that wilfully ignores such a weight of evidence and pursues savings in one column of the public balance sheet at greater cost elsewhere. I am afraid I am no longer surprised by the irrationality of some bureaucratic decisions.
What I do find astonishing in this case is the disregard for the principles of justice and the history of Scotland.
Fundamentally, justice must not only be done but also be seen to be done, and access to justice must be fiercely protected. Local papers have consistently opposed this closure because they cover the decisions of our local court assiduously, and exposure in the local press is a powerful element of the deterrent effect of its deliberations.
You are not sentenced in East Lothian without everyone knowing, and the presence of local JPs on the bench means you are likely to find yourself facing someone who knows you or your family. That will go, because local papers will not be able to cover cases in Edinburgh, and JPs will no longer be truly local.
The justice secretary remains unconcerned. Nor, for a member a government so precious about Scotland’s history, does he seem to care for the fact that justice of some sort has been administered in Haddington since 1124, and the town has had a Sheriff Court since at least 1542.
Meanwhile, JPs trace their tradition back to the introduction of lay justice by James VI – a deliberate counter to the power of the nobility, justice for the people, by the people. Haddington court has survived Henry VIII, the ’45 rebellion, the Reformation, Oliver Cromwell and two world wars, but will not, it seems, survive Mr MacAskill’s tenure as justice secretary. That is unless SNP members of Holyrood’s justice committee make a stand on the evidence and the principles of justice by supporting opposition MSPs, annulling these parliamentary orders and thereby forcing them on to the floor of the whole parliament.
On Tuesday, the committee was stunned by the chief executive of the Court Service’s revelation that he plans further rounds of closures and even greater centralisation, which will leave great swathes of Scotland dependent on a single, distant court for all civil, criminal and family law matters.
Some SNP MSPs, including members of the justice committee, have already marshalled powerful arguments for their own courts, cases just as strong as mine for Haddington. Their colleagues in local government have also spoken up, for example in East Lothian Council where SNP councillors backed a Labour motion that Haddington should remain open. This is a test of the integrity and independence of our parliament and its MSPs. Meaningful local justice in Scotland is in jeopardy and the committee, and then the whole parliament, must do the right thing, with MSPs having the courage of their convictions, and act as true parliamentarians rather than simply as the party faithful.
• Iain Gray is Labour MSP for East Lothian