Council to fight Holyrood over proposed court closures

The Scottish Goverment is facing strong resistance in the Borders, with Scottish Borders Council and a firm of local solicitors both against its plans to close Peebles and Duns Sheriff Courts.

SBC “strongly opposes” the cost-cutting move, while Border legal firm Bannerman Burke has vowed to join a nationwide strike by Scottish lawyers over its cuts to legal aid.

Facing a massive slash to its budget, the Scottish Court Service (SCS) published a public consultation paper in September proposing to close any court with “low volumes of business”.

Under the plans, all business at the Sheriff and Justice of Peace (JP) courts at Duns and Peebles would transfer to the neighbouring sheriff court districts of Jedburgh and Edinburgh respectively, while the sheriff and jury courts in Selkirk and Jedburgh would remain open.

Today, a full meeting of Scottish Borders Council (SBC) will discuss a report compiled by chief executive Tracey Logan and director of social work Andrew Lowe, which sets out its arguments against the court closures.

Executive member for corporate improvement and HR, Councillor Michael Cook, said: “We have huge concerns about the potential impact of these proposals on the people of the Borders.”

Ian Wilkie, head of legal and democratic services for SBC, said: “We have put a lot of work into looking at the impact of these potential changes on the people of the Borders.

“Of course, we understand that the court service has to be structured in a way which makes best use of public money, however, we strongly believe that the negative impact of these potential changes is not proportionate to the savings the SCS would make.

“There are a range of alternative options available to the SCS to consider that would enable them to address their challenges, as well as ensuring that the rights of the people of the Borders to have fair access to justice are maintained.

“I am fairly positive that the SCS will take our response forward and I do hope we can open up discussions with them on this with a view to them reconsidering the proposals as they currently stand.”

The SBC report raises concerns about increased travel distances for Duns and Peebles court users.

“Not all Borderers would be able to travel to and from court on the same day by public transport,” it observes, adding that the cost may be “unaffordable for low-income households”. The report continues: “Members of the public could be denied their right to a fair trial, or to present evidence at a trial, by reason of excessive cost or the inaccessibility of the venue.”

The council-owned Peebles court, once named a ‘blueprint for Scotland’ by the Deputy First Minister, costs SCS only £10,175 in rent a year, with no permanent staff at either Peebles or Duns.

“The council cannot see how any meaningful savings can be achieved by the closure of the courts at Duns and Peebles,” the report states.

SBC suggests instead “the court business from Midlothian/Penicuik should be routed to Peebles,” adding, “[if] the decision is taken to close the Peebles court, we request that the business should transfer to Selkirk.”

The SCS proposes moving sheriff and jury trials out of the Borders, but SBC argues this will lead to “the loss of the accused person’s historic privilege of being tried by his or her peers.” Furthermore if, as the SCS plans, Borders courts are served only by summary sheriffs, Borderers will then have to “travel greater distances for specialist legal advice”.

Meanwhile, angry at proposed changes to legal aid, the Edinburgh Bar Association went on strike on Monday, refusing to represent people appearing from the capital’s cells after weekend arrests. Government reforms mean people with a disposable income of £68 per week must pay to defend themselves, and that law firms must collect the contribution. Faculties of lawyers from across Scotland are deciding whether to launch a nationwide strike for the first time in Scotland.

“We support the Edinburgh lawyers,” solicitor Iain Burke of Border legal firm Bannerman Burke told TheSouthern. “If we are left with no option, yes, we would partake in the strike.”

He argued that the legal aid reforms present a “significant risk of a miscarriage of justice for the most vulnerable in society – those who can’t afford to pay for justice. The SNP Scottish Government’s bottom line is saving money. There’s been no thought to what comes after that.”

Lawyers dealing with legal aid would bear the brunt of the cuts, added Mr Burke, whose firm is one of only a few offering criminal and civil legal aid in the Borders. “There is a real risk we would have to significantly reduce the services we offer,” he warned.

Cllr Cook added: “I would urge the people of the Borders also to make their views known [in the consultation].”

The consultation closes at noon on December 21.