Delays for justice worsen in wake of Scottish court closures

Haddington was among the sheriff courts to have closed in recent years. Picture: Andrew O'Brien
Haddington was among the sheriff courts to have closed in recent years. Picture: Andrew O'Brien
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Delays in Scotland’s courts are getting worse after a raft of ­closures across the country, it has emerged.

A growing number of cases are taking more than six months to conclude in sheriff courts, exceeding national targets aimed at ensuring the justice system runs smoothly. The issue comes despite the courts dealing with fewer cases in total.

Ten sheriff and seven Justice of the Peace courts have closed in recent years, with ten buildings shut, as the Scottish Government sought to make cost savings in the justice system.

Only two courts in Scotland – Stornoway and Portree – hit the 26-week target from issuing a caution or charge to reaching a verdict for all cases in November 2016, figures revealed by the Scottish Conservatives have shown.

In the same month, Inverness and Lochmaddy sheriff courts failed to hit the target for more than half of cases – meeting 44.4 per cent and 
40 per cent respectively.

Across Scotland, just 69.8 per cent of cases are being dealt with in the six-month window, down from 73.2 per cent for November 2015.

Tory justice spokesman Douglas Ross said: “This is another example of the SNP being warned against making a decision for a number of reasons, but blundering on anyway. Now it’s taking longer to get cases through court and many will feel that’s a direct result of the SNP’s closure programme.

“This doesn’t just have an adverse impact on the staff left to sort this out, it also creates inconvenience for witnesses and victims of crime.

“Now that the SNP has shut these courts right across the country, the least it could do is ensure those remaining have sufficient resources to see cases through to their conclusion in the target timeframe.”

The number of cases being dealt with in courts fell over the year by 94 from 3,542 to 3,448. But more than half of the 40 courts – 22 in total – are taking longer to deal with cases in November 2016 than in the previous year.

The other 18 courts had improved their performance and were hitting the target for a higher rate of cases.

Officials at the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service stressed that the Scottish Government’s 26 week target was an overall, justice system-wide target, covering the period between Police caution and charge, to COPFS prosecution, to Court verdict. 

And they said that, with additional funding from Scottish Government, court performance had actually improved, with the percentage of cases fully disposed within 20 weeks increasing from 57 per cent in 2014-15 to 65 per cent currently.

Chief Executive Eric McQueen said: “The reality is that the justice system across Scotland is having to respond to an increase in case complexity in both summary and solemn business, particularly in relation to domestic abuse and sexual offences, with a far greater proportion of these cases proceeding to evidence-led trials.

“This is not a new issue, having been fully recognised in Audit Scotland’s 2015 report, Efficiency of prosecuting criminal cases through the sheriff court system, which confirmed ‘fewer cases were concluding within the 26-week performance target, the average time for cases to conclude had risen, and a greater proportion of cases are going to trial. This is, in part, due to a greater focus on more complex cases involving domestic abuse and historic sexual offences, and a subsequent rise in reporting of these types of crimes’.

“Rather than tinkering at the edges we need serious discussion on how we move from a justice system with its origins in Victorian times, to radical reform of summary procedures allowing for a digitally-enabled justice process, with early agreement of digital evidence and active case management systems to minimise the need for procedural hearings, significantly reducing the impact on victims and witnesses.

“SCTS has already started that discussion with justice organisations, the legal profession and voluntary organisations. Our earlier Evidence and Procedure Review reports set out the challenges and having worked with a wide range people involved in the justice system we will shortly publish a further report to outline how radical digital transformation could be achieved.”

Recent court closures have attracted controversy, particularly in former royal burghs.

The market town of Cupar lost its sheriff court in 2014, with cases from north-east Fife now being heard in Dundee.

Haddington Sheriff Court closed the following year, with its business being moved to Edinburgh.