Damning verdict in court drama

Local councillors stand united against the closure of Peebles Sheriff Court.'L-r,  Willie Archibald, Bill Herd, Catriona Bahatia, Gavin Logan and Graham Garvie, missing from photo Neil Calvert.
Local councillors stand united against the closure of Peebles Sheriff Court.'L-r, Willie Archibald, Bill Herd, Catriona Bahatia, Gavin Logan and Graham Garvie, missing from photo Neil Calvert.

WIDESPREAD opposition has greeted the shock news that plans have been drawn up to close three of the region’s four sheriff courts.

The proposals are contained in a leaked internal discussion document prepared by the Scottish Courts Service (SCS) which is facing a 20 per cent cut in its future revenue budget. The maintenance of court buildings, most of which date from the 19th century, accounts for 40 per cent of its current expenditure.

Earmarked for closure are a dozen Scottish sheriff courts – including Peebles and Duns – because they are not busy enough.

And Selkirk, understood to be the most expensive court to maintain in the Borders, is also set for the chop because it serves a town with a population of less than 20,000 and is within 20 miles of another, bigger court – in this case, Jedburgh, which may no longer be allowed to hear jury trials under the cost-cutting programme.

Although the SCS was keen to point out that its review is not complete, and that any closures will require public consultation and the ultimate sanction of the Scottish Parliament, there has been a flood of dissent this week.

It began in Peebles on Tuesday when the six Tweeddale members of Scottish Borders Council – Lib Dems Graham Garvie and Catriona Bhatia, Tories Neil Calvert and Gavin Logan, and the SNP’s Bill Herd and Willie Archibald – issued a joint statement, condemning any dimunition in the town’s judiciary.

“Together, we wish to emphasise the value of justice being not only delivered locally – a powerful deterrent to crime and the most effective means of maintainting the rule of law – but being readily accessible to all concerned.

“We are united in our call for the continuance of sheriff court services in Peebles ... and are mindful of the value of this service in delivering the present low rate of offending in this part of Scotland.”

The six have lodged a motion for next month, calling on their council to deplore the closure proposals and demanding the Scottish Government “intervenes urgently” to secure the future of the town’s court.

Christine Grahame MSP recalled that the justice committee she chairs at Holyrood was given an assurance last month by Lord Hamilton, head of the judiciary in Scotland, that there would be full consultation and the needs of rural areas would be recongised.

“There should be no closures without proper consultation ... the views of those in rural areas must be properly addressed,” she added.

John Lamont MSP said shutting the Selkirk and Duns courts in his constituency would be “a severe blow”.

Pat Thom, dean of the Selkirkshire and Peebles faculty of solicitors, told us: “Given the geography of the Borders we cannot see there are economies of scale in taking such action.

“Peebles is currently being manned by Selkirk and in addition to this, a tremendous amount of work is being processed in Selkirk. Edinburgh Sheriff Court is currently in chaos and not coping with its workload and we would have real concerns about the effects of that being increased by work from the Borders.

“A motion lodged in Selkirk is dealt with in 14 days whereas Edinburgh seems unable to turn around such a motion within two months. In family matters involving children that delay can be quite devastating.

“My faculty is proposing an urgent meeting with concerned councillors and MSPs to enable us to agree a concerted approach to this very worrying development.”