Tom Peterkin: Shooting sheriff is not the answer

Tom Peterkin. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Tom Peterkin. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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MANY years ago there was an unseemly scuffle on the steps of Arbroath Sheriff Court. Admittedly unseemly scuffles are not uncommon occurrences outside Scotland’s courts, but on this occasion it was the sitting sheriff who got it in the neck – or more precisely the ribs.

A miscreant who had just been sentenced to community service bust a couple of the sheriff’s ribs after waiting outside for him at the close of the day’s business. The source of the villain’s displeasure was that he had not been detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure. The thought of another Christmas spent on park benches had led the criminal to hope that his latest brush with the law would secure him a spell inside for the festivities. The assault on the sheriff, a man noted for an enlightened approach to sentencing which made much of non-custodial rehabilitation, ensured that the attacker’s Christmas wish eventually came true.

By the time I had spent two years in the mid-1990s reporting from Arbroath Sheriff Court, there was another character on the bench. In one of the country’s busiest courts, Sheriff Norrie Stein dispensed justice with a no-nonsense style that saw him deal with serious cases with suitable severity. But in common with his broken-ribbed predecessor there was also a strong sense of humanity, which sought to turn around troubled lives.

Having spent time chronicling the misbehaviour and misfits that were an unfortunate feature of that otherwise splendid seaside town, it seems inconceivable to me that Arbroath’s court should be earmarked for closure.

Yet this week Holyrood’s justice committee rubber stamped plans to close Arbroath Sheriff Court and nine others across Scotland.

Those who oppose the closures have made much of the cost to the local economy and issues like the inconvenience of court users having to travel substantial distances on public transport – in Arbroath’s case, the bus to Forfar.

But there must also be concern that sheriffs will no longer have the same level of local knowledge accumulated by sheriffs such as Norrie Stein.

Here was an example of a sheriff who worked hard to make a difference in the community that he served. Mr Stein became involved in Arbroath’s Oasis drop in centre, which was set up by local sheriff clerk Graham Webster to prevent youngsters from turning to drugs. That led to Stein playing a leading role in establishing Arbroath’s Community Alcohol Free Environment (CAFÉ), a project which did much to discourage people from appearing before him.

One suspects that the centralisation of Scotland’s court services will do little to foster that kind of relationship between a sheriff and the peripheral towns in his or her’s enlarged sheriffdom.

The trade-off is that there will probably be fewer unseemly scuffles in Arbroath High Street.