Closing courts ‘could undermine legal system’

Picture: Getty
Picture: Getty
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Controversial plans to close 17 courts across Scotland could undermine the reputation of the legal system and lead to miscarriages of justice, lawyers have warned.

They joined protestors in a rally outside the Scottish Parliament yesterday over the plans to close 17 courts, including ten of the country’s 49 sheriff courts.

Justice secretary Kenny ­MacAskill said it will lead to one-off savings of £3 million and £1m a year later.

The savings were disputed by campaigners who gathered outside Holyrood and insisted the closures will “undermine the fabric of communities”.

The protest took place as Mr MacAskill was grilled by MSPs inside parliament over the measures, which will also see seven justice of the peace courts shut. The justice secretary told MSPs on Holyrood’s justice committee: “Many of Scotland’s courts date from Victorian times and are not fit for purpose in the 21st century, and many are under-used.

“The reality is, it is a better use of a shrinking budget to concentrate funds on a smaller number of better-equipped courts where modern facilities are provided for victims, witnesses and 
jurors.”

This was disputed by the protesters including criminal lawyer Colm Dempsey of East Lothian-based Capital Defence lawyers in Haddington, who said there had been a court in the town for 800 years.

The changes would see ­Haddington’s work switch to Edinburgh, but figures produced by the local bar association indicate this would lead to increased costs of potentially £500,000 in travel expenses as police, social workers and witnesses go to the capital.

Mr Dempsey said: “In Scotland we are respected for our legal system but perhaps he [MacAskill] is going to jeopardise that. Ultimately, if the courts can’t manage this work in Edinburgh, there potentially could be miscarriages of justice.”

Campaigners from Kirkcudbright, Cupar and Falkirk were also among those at Holyrood.

The Borders will lose two of its four courts, with Peebles and Duns closing and the work shifting to Selkirk and Jedburgh.

Family lawyer Sally Swinney, of Peebles-based Blackwood and Smith, said: “It’s vitally important local justice is dealt with in the community.

“My speciality is family law and families are already stressed. To have them travel greater distances I don’t think is fair.”

Advocate Niall McCluskey was also among the protesters and insisted the changes were “not good for justice”.

He added: “A local court stands for justice in the community whereas a centralised court is something remote.”

Scotland’s top judge told the justice committee yesterday that the network of courts is “based on a Victorian model” and that savings have to be made.

Lord Gill, lord president of the Court of Session, said the Scottish Court Service “whether it likes it or not, has to achieve a reduction in its budget of 20 per cent over the four-year period from 2010-11 to 2014-15”.

He said: “We’ve got no choice in the matter.”