Scotland’s Sheriff courts ‘wasting £10m a year’

Ten sheriff courts have been closed including Haddington, above. Picture: Andrew O'Brien

Ten sheriff courts have been closed including Haddington, above. Picture: Andrew O'Brien

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SCOTLAND’S sheriff courts have come under fire over widespread delays and cases taking longer to call.

Around £10 million a year is being wasted on cases calling needlessly and more than a third of cases take longer than the 26-week official target, a report by public spending watchdog Audit Scotland today finds.

Victims and witnesses complain of delays and slow processes. Some warned delays are so bad that it affects their ability to recall events in their testimony.

A rise in “complex” cases involving domestic abuse and historic sexual offences is among the reasons behind the growing delays.

The report comes after cuts to court and prosection service budgets in recent years, including the closure of 10 sheriff courts across Scotland.

Opposition parties warned that Scots are being denied “access to justice”.

Labour justice spokesman Graeme Pearson said: “Closing down local courts has denied communities access to justice. This is important - under the SNP we have seen a near total erosion in public confidence and trust in our policing. It cannot extend to the legal system as a whole.”

Sheriff courts hear most cases in Scotland’s justice system like assaults and housbreaking – but the most serious cases like murder and rape call in the High Court.

The Scottish Government has cut the budgets of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service by 14 per cent and the Scottish Courts Service by 28 per cent.

Conservative justice spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell said: “Courts are under increasing pressure as a result of the SNP majority government’s policies.

“That’s bad news for victims and witnesses, and for the taxpayer who funds the court service to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds.”

But the Scottish Government said the cuts to the Crown Office and courts are down to Budget reductions from Westminster.

A spokeswoman added: “We are committed to ensuring that criminal cases are managed as efficiently as possible.

“In 2014/15 we provided £1.47 million in additional funding for extra fiscals, court staff and judiciary, to help speed up the delivery of justice and this year we have committed £2.4 million to ensure swift progress of cases involving domestic abuse and sexual violence.” A spokesman for the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service said: “Additional funding means more business is being accommodated, the number of outstanding trials are being reduced and most courts make trial dates within 16 weeks.”

The Crown Office said it is “fully committed” to implementing Audit Scotland’s recommendations.

A spokesman said: “The report complements our moves towards modernising the way we contact witnesses, including the use of text messages, and we are planning to make further use of technology to deliver improvements in the near future.”

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