Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Law & Order : Holyrood Justice Committee blocks MacAskill’s court closure plans

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill’s plans to close three small courts were blocked at Holyrood by MSPs as Holyrood’s Justice Committee criticised plans to close the district courts at Annan in Dumfriesshire and Girvan and Cumnock in Ayrshire.

The Scotsman reports :

Move to shut local courts blocked by MSPs

Published Date: 05 May 2009

SCOTTISH Government moves to close three small local courts were today blocked by MSPs.

The rebuff for ministers came from Holyrood's Justice Committee where MSPs criticised plans to close the district courts at Annan in Dumfriesshire and Girvan and Cumnock in Ayrshire.

Under the plan, their workload would be moved to Dumfries and Ayr respectively.

But Labour and Liberal Democrats argued against it and a motion by Labour MSP Dr Elaine Murray to block the move was passed by a 5-3 majority.

The issue is now likely to go before the full Parliament next Wednesday for a debate and vote.

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill later accused his opponents of "political games," a charge angrily denied by Dr Murray, MSP for Dumfries, and Cathy Jamieson, Labour MSP for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley.

Speaking after the committee's move, Mr MacAskill told reporters: "We will need to consider – clearly we are disappointed."

He said the plans was part of reforms launched by the previous administration and similar rural court changes had already taken place in the Highlands, Grampian and elsewhere.

"But it seems some political games are being played, rather than the best interests of justice", he said.

But Ms Jamieson called that comment "outrageous" and said it was not a party issue.

"I was at the committee representing the views of my local constituents, which include the leader of the SNP-controlled council in East Ayrshire, and the local justices' committee," she said.

And Dr Murray said: "There was cross-party support for retaining Annan district court.

"It's not about political games – we believe access to justice is not best served by centralising courts in Dumfries.

Plans to close the courts form part of a wider shake-up of Scotland's summary justice system.

The shake-up involved replacing district courts with justice of the peace courts, which are administer by the Scottish courts service – and in some cases the courts are being relocated.

At today's meeting Mr MacAskill and officials of the court service and Crown Office defended the changes planned for the sheriffdom of South Strathclyde, which covers the three closure-listed courts.

But the plans were criticised by Labour as unnecessary centralisation, and Liberal Democrat Robert Brown said the critics had a "reasonable" case.

Mr MacAskill and official argued that the change would lead to better court accommodation, and that the inconvenience caused to some by the relocation was countered by the gains for others.

And in the case of Annan, it was argued, the vast majority of court business did not involve local people but motorists booked for traffic offences on the M74 motorway.

Mr MacAskill told the committee: "Some towns have both a sheriff and district court, neither of which is fully employed.

"In those situations we would take the opportunity to realise sensible efficiencies through rationalisation and upgrade of the estate."

He said other changes to the summary justice system would result in fewer people having to attend court.

There would also be improvements by putting district courts under the wing of the Scottish courts service rather than 32 different local authorities.

"Local access to justice has not been significantly compromised," he said.

"We are satisfied that the recommendation has been carefully considered with regard to all interests, and represents the best arrangement for the provision of summary criminal courts in the sheriffdom."

But Dr Murray argued that the planned closure of Annan district court was based on wrong assumptions.

For residents of Langholm, the Annan closure would make Dumfries their nearest court, but with no train or direct bus service there.

Dumfries and Galloway Council would be prepared to make a contribution of at least £20,000 to upgrading health and safety requirements at the Annan court.

And in a written submission, Dr Murray said: "People from Langholm will require to travel 40 miles to pay their fine at Dumfries Sheriff Court.

"People situated to the east of Annan will therefore find themselves in the ridiculous position that it would be more convenient for them to have fines etc transferred to Carlisle magistrates court in England which they could at least reach by way of public transport services".

Cathy Jamieson told of local opposition to the Ayrshire changes and said: "My concern is not simply about the buildings, but also about the wider message this sends to local communities.

"We are moving away from a system based on community involvement in justice to something which is literally more remote."

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