the Scottish Government has announced plans to channel significantly more work through sheriff courts – just months after pledging to close a quarter of them across Scotland.
Nanette Milne, Scottish Conservative MSP for the North-east, has expressed concern for the future of justice for rural communities following the proposal to close courts in Stonehaven and Arbroath. The closures are being considered following a 20% cut to the Scottish Court Service budget by the Holyrood Government.
In its Courts Reform consultation, the SNP said civil cases worth up to £150,000 would now be dealt with in sheriff courts instead of the Court of Session.
That would free up the latter to deal with more complex and time-consuming cases, justice secretary Kenny MacAskill said.
However, last year the Scottish Government announced plans to shut 11 of Scotland’s sheriff courts, meaning around a quarter would be lost and resulting in increased workloads for those remaining.
That will now be intensified by the plans announced this week.
Ms Milne said: “While many of the aims outlined are welcome, it is utterly short-sighted to close a quarter of sheriff courts one minute, then send them considerably more work the next.
“The SNP has already being told that fewer sheriff courts would struggle to cope with the criminal caseload they had been left with.
“So, Kenny MacAskill’s answer to that is to send even more cases to already overworked sheriff courts.
“It is true that this move will free up the Court of Session for more complex cases, but a reduction in the number of courts should only be made if the capacity for processing criminal and civil cases is not adversely affected.
‘‘I fail to see how this is achievable by the proposal to close more than a third of Scotland’s courts.
“These proposed changes require careful consideration, especially in rural areas where the presence of a local court can save time and money.
‘‘As the Scottish Court Service itself accepts, closures will impact on travel time and this could lead to trials being delayed.
“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.
“Justice delayed is justice denied. The closure of rural courts will inevitably inconvenience members of the public and take away from the front line policing duties of police officers.
‘‘Before any decisions are taken, it is vital that SNP Ministers take on board the views expressed by court staff, volunteers and members of the Crown Office, Procurator Fiscal Service and Scottish Prison Service before ploughing ahead with these plans.’’