Once again we are faced with a Scottish Government determined that logic, common sense and widespread opposition from within and without the legal system will play second fiddle to political expediency.
Justice secretary Kenny MacAskill would do well to listen carefully to your published assessment from Ronnie Conway, Scottish co-ordinator for the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, who says: “The system is in crisis. What you are being asked to approve will turn it into a train wreck. I don’t apologise for the apocalyptic language – that’s what will happen.”
I have recently spoken to sheriffs, court personnel, witnesses, lawyers and Victim Support personnel, and my findings convince me that court closures and the devolution of civil and some criminal work to the sheriff courts will put an already creaking system under intolerable strain and lead to an even more inefficient and ineffective system.
It is a central principle of change management that before change is contemplated the current overall health and efficiency of the organisation is carefully determined through a detailed workload analysis and assessment of efficiency. I see no evidence that this has been carried out in respect of the proposed changes.
Some important questions remain to be answered before change is contemplated.
To what extent have unrealistic plea bargaining, inappropriate fiscal fines and manipulated court waiting times masked workload and efficiency problems?
How many victims, witnesses, potential jury members and accused persons have been sent home because some aspect of their case is not ready? How often is information previously in the hands of court officials, which would allow witnesses to be countermanded, not being passed on until the witnesses are in court?
How often is the ineffective precognition of witnesses leading to their turning up at court unable or unwilling to give reliable evidence or speak to the testimony already passed on to the police or procurator fiscal?
I would argue that Sheriff Court case management and administration is often an embarrassing shambles which affects victims, accused, lawyers, judges, witnesses and all working within the system.
It makes a mockery of the procedures to ensure that vulnerable witnesses are protected and that victims of domestic and sexual abuse are dealt with speedily and with compassion.
While agreeing that the courts (both civil and criminal) provide a “slow, inefficient and expensive” service and “delay and cost” have made access to justice a lottery, change introduced into an already struggling structure can only serve to further destabilise it, lower the efficiency and morale of those working within it and undermine the potentially valuable intended reforms.
Iain A J McKie
South Beach Road