ON 27 June 2002, as MSP for Tweeddale Ettrick and Lauderdale, I took part, along with South of Scotland MSPs Christine Grahame and Murray Tosh, in a Scottish Parliament debate in which we all argued against the proposed closure of Peebles Sheriff Court.
We were joined in our opposition to the closure by Lothian MSP Kenny MacAskill – currently the justice secretary – who is now himself seeking to close our court in Peebles and other small courts across Scotland.
On that occasion, Mr MacAskill spoke in the clearest possible terms about the importance of keeping the administration of justice within the community which it is designed to serve.
Now, as he is about to appear before Holyrood’s justice committee to give evidence on the proposed closures, I think that the members of that committee, as well as those campaigning against small-court closures, might be interested in what he had to say, including the following:
“The fact that Peebles Sheriff Court is not the busiest does not mean it should be denigrated.
“The fact is that democracy does not come cheap. The potential closure of Peebles Sheriff Court is not simply about the judicial process, or expediting the way in which petty or serious crime is dealt with. Fundamentally, the issue concerns how a democratic society works. Sheriff courts are part of the apparatus of state at the local level. A visible court presence gives citizens a clear sense of security.
“The issue concerns how we bring democracy home to people and down to the roots. The fundamental tenet of any democratic society is a judicial system that is not only affordable, but accessible and visible.
“At the end of the day, the people in Peebles and Tweeddale are entitled to a court on their doorstep.”
These were Mr MacAskill’s firmly held views in 2002. It will be shameful and will smack of hypocrisy if he now departs from his principled position and closes the very court he so strongly defended, (as well as others in a similar position), simply to make minimal savings from the Scottish Court Service’s multi-million pound budget.
According to SCS figures, closing court services in Peebles would save only £17,000 a year and in Rothesay, for example, would save only £6,000 a year.
The Kenny MacAskill of 2002 would not so cheaply have yielded up such a ”fundamental tenet of any democratic society”.
There is still time for a change of heart. Parliament’s justice committee must remind him of his principles and persuade him to think again. If it does not it will be letting us down.
Ian Jenkins (Former Lib Dem MSP)
South Park Drive
Peebles, Scottish Borders