Courting trouble

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Having now finally retired after 40 years as a judge in Scotland (30 years as a sheriff and 17 years as a part-time temporary judge in the High Court of Justiciary), I welcome the opportunity publicly to comment without inhibition on legal matters. I am, therefore, delighted to agree with the sentiments expressed in your leading article “Legal aid reforms not fair on anyone” (Perspective, 14 December).

However, I think that it is unfortunate that the news item on which your leader was based gave a misleading impression of the business of the sheriff court.

A person reading the report without any knowledge of the Scottish court system would be entitled to assume that the only criminal trials in the sheriff court were summary trials (ie cases heard by a sheriff alone without a jury) and that all solemn cases (ie cases which, if they go to trial, are before a jury) are in the High Court. Such is not the case. In fact, the great majority of criminal jury trials take place in the sheriff court and, as your report correctly stated, only the most serious cases go to the High Court.  

The article gave the examples of murder and rape. These are the two crimes for which the High Court has exclusive jurisdiction, but most other cases of serious crime, such as assault and robbery, are tried in the sheriff court before a jury. 

Most sheriff courts are under very serious pressure at present, and this will be exacerbated by the closure of some smaller sheriff courts whose business will be transferred to larger courts, which are finding it difficult to cope with the existing volume of work.

If defence solicitors follow the advice of the Law Society of Scotland and withdraw from acting for accused persons, an already bad situation will be made a great deal worse.

Alastair StewarT

Albany Road
Broughty Ferry, Dundee