Fears for Scottish justice system as 11 sheriff courts earmarked for axe

David McLetchie. Picture: Ian Rutherford
David McLetchie. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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PUBLIC access to justice could be threatened by controversial plans to impose widespread court closures across Scotland, legal figures have warned.

Eleven sheriff courts are to close, while sheriff and jury trials will be restricted to just 16 of the country’s remaining 38 courts.

Under the plans, the High Court will be based in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. But it could also sit in other places in special cases.

The Scottish Courts Service (SCS) has begun a three-month consultation on its plan to shut courts in Dornoch, Duns, Kirkcudbright, Peebles, Rothesay, Alloa, Cupar, Dingwall, Arbroath, Haddington and Stonehaven. Business from these would be transferred to neighbouring districts.

Justice of the peace courts in Coatbridge, Cumbernauld, Annan, Irvine and Motherwell would also be shut, with business transferred to sheriff courts in appropriate districts.

The SCS said having fewer buildings would allow investment to be targeted to ensure the “best possible facilities and level of service is available for all court users but more particularly for victims, witnesses and vulnerable people”.

Eric McQueen, executive director of the SCS, said: “For most people, attending court is a rare experience and future court services will seek to reduce this requirement through greater use of technology and online services.”

But the Law Society of Scotland warned the changes could restrict access to justice, particularly in rural areas. Austin Lafferty, its president, said: “Local courts have an important role within their communities and it is absolutely essential that access to justice remains the core consideration throughout this consultation process.

“It is vital that, as a result of trying to streamline costs in one area, new difficulties are not created elsewhere.”

The plans were also criticised by the Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents court staff, and by Conservative justice spokesman David McLetchie, who said: “A reduction in the number of courts should only be made if the capacity for processing criminal and civil cases is not adversely affected. Simply closing courts without properly examining the consequences will expose ministers to charges of pursuing a soft-touch agenda which short-changes the victims of crime.”

Scottish Labour justice spokesman Lewis Macdonald said: “Local communities who are served by these courts need to make a stand and campaign for the courts to remain. If a court is regularly used and meets a geographical need, then it should be kept.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The SCS operates independently of government but they are not immune from the financial pressures facing us all. This three-month consultation gives the people of Scotland the opportunity to have their say on the proposals.”