Delivery of justice in Scotland set back 300 years say critics. THE Scottish Court Service (SCS) has announced it is creating a new court structure “for the future” in the restructuring of court services in Scotland which will result in the closure of most local courts across the country under the guise of reform. The sweeping proposals to cull many of Scotland’s local courts were set out in Shaping Scotland's Court Services, published following a ‘public consultation’ organised by the court service & Scottish Government.
However, critics of the plans which include both legal professionals and court users say the move is little more than a move by the Scottish Government to centralise justice in a handful of justice hubs where cases and their outcomes can be more easily controlled or influenced by vested interests.
Commenting on the planned changes a solicitor said: “We are turning the clock back three hundred years on the delivery of justice in Scotland.”
Court users & consumer groups have also pointed out it will be even more difficult than present for members of the public to obtain access to justice once local courts have closed.
The Scottish Court Service (SCS) is creating a new court structure for the future and Phase II gets underway on May 31, 2014.
From that date, court business previously held in Stonehaven, Cupar and Arbroath Sheriff and Justice of the Peace Courts will transfer to Aberdeen, Dundee and Forfar Sheriff and Justice of the Peace Courts respectively.
The court restructure is part of some of the most visionary changes to Scotland's justice system in well over a century and supports legislative reform, improves services and facilities for court users, including victims and witnesses, and is affordable in the long term.
The volume of business transacted in the courts which will close over a two year period, is around 5% of the overall court business across Scotland. Court capacity in all receiving courts will be supported by the transfer of staff and members of the judiciary from closing courts to deal with the business.
SCS Chief Executive Eric McQueen said: "Our vision is to have court structures in place that are cost effective, proportionate, accessible and efficient. Cases and appeals will be heard by the right court in both civil and criminal cases, with the highest courts reserved for the most serious and complex cases. Court procedures will be as easy as possible to understand and access and cases dealt with as efficiently as possible once they come to court.
"To achieve this we are targeting our investment to create a modern court structure throughout Scotland. Our Corporate Plan for 2014-17 sets out our programme for the next three years to transform our services and put digital innovation at their heart.
"Investing in fewer courts enables us to make these improvements to facilities and technology, which will provide better services for all court users, and in particular victims and witnesses. Where sheriff courts are closing we have installed facilities to allow victims and witnesses to use video technology to give evidence or make contact with the court, where this is allowed by the current legislation. Future legislative changes will extend the circumstances where video links are possible in criminal and civil procedures."
Arbroath Sheriff and Justice of the Peace Court business will transfer to Forfar Sheriff and Justice of the Peace Court where the SCS has been able to target savings to invest in improved court facilities. Improvements are being made for vulnerable witnesses; new accommodation is provided for the Witness Service and better custody facilities as required by HMIP (Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons for Scotland).
Similarly in Dundee Sheriff and Justice of the Peace Court, which will take the business from Cupar Sheriff and Justice of the Peace Court, the SCS has improved accommodation for witnesses and jurors, providing new non-custodial interview rooms and created catering facilities to serve all court users. With the High Court no longer sitting in Dundee the court will have ample capacity to deal with future business levels and will be fully fit for purpose.
In Aberdeen, where court business will be taken from Stonehaven, construction is already underway of a modern and fully equipped civil centre and commercial court with state of the art technology. The separation of criminal and civil proceedings at this location will provide a greatly improved court environment allowing, for example, children's hearings to take place in a more appropriate courtroom setting.
There will be no compulsory redundancies in delivering this programme.
Restructuring relating to the closure of courts required approval by the Scottish Parliament.
In November 2013 the following courts closed in Phase I of the programme:
Annan JP Court, Cumbernauld JP Court, Irvine JP Court, Motherwell JP Court, Dornoch Sheriff & JP Court, Kirkcudbright Sheriff & JP Court, Rothesay Sheriff Court.
May 2014 phase II:
Arbroath Sheriff & JP Court, Cupar Sheriff & JP Court, Stonehaven Sheriff & JP Court.
January 2015 phase III:
Dingwall Sheriff & JP Court, Duns Sheriff & JP Court, Haddington Sheriff & JP Court, Peebles Sheriff & JP Court.
Other changes will see High Court trials concentrated mainly in the Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen centres and over a ten year period, sheriff and jury trials will become focussed in 16 mainland courts. The four island courts will continue to hear all business within the jurisdiction of the sheriff. These courts will also deal with specialist civil business, with the remaining courts dealing principally with the jurisdiction of the new summary sheriffs proposed by the Courts Reform (Scotland) Bill.
More information on Shaping Scotland's Court Services:
Scottish Court Service – Corporate Plan 2014-17
Scottish Government - Making Justice Work