Shared services with council may be the key to saving court, say solicitors

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SCOTTISH Borders Council should consider operating some its services from the threatened sheriff court building in Selkirk.

Such an arrangement would, local lawyers heard this week, help reduce the burden of cost on the Scottish Court Service (SCS) which owns the facility and is currently consulting on its closure, along with the sheriff courts in Peebles and Duns, in a bid to save money.

The spectre of the Borders being left with a single shrieval presence – at Jedburgh – loomed large on Tuesday when the region’s three faculties, representing around 80 practising solicitors, met in Galashiels to consider their response to the closure programme which was leaked late last year.

“We were extremely heartened by the comments of Sheriff Kevin Drummond reported in TheSouthern last week and the strong case he made for the four-court network to be retained,” said Patricia Thom, dean of the Roxburghsire faculty and a partner of Bannerman Burke, based in Kelso.

This week’s meeting was attended by Andrew Alexander from the Law Society of Scotland, which represents all practising Scottish solicitors. Mr Alexander stressed the principles of access to justice as promulgated earlier this year by Lord Hamilton, Lord President of the Court of Session and head of the judiciary in Scotland, along with all sheriffs principal.

A key principle is: “It is desirable that criminal justice be delivered locally ... apart from the inconvenience to witnesses or the interests of alleged victims, this engages the local community in the administration of justice.”

But while the Law Society is keen to support faculties in fighting closures across Scotland, where as many as 14 courts are proposed for the axe in the SCS document, Mr Alexander reminded the local solicitors of the reality that the cake – the SCS budget – was finite and that a strong economic case would have to made for retention of the status quo.

Mrs Thom said several solicitors employed by Scottish Borders Council expressed the hope that a working group of officials and councillors, which is to look at ways of reducing the financial burden on the SCS, would investigate the possibility of the council operating services from the building in Selkirk.

Back in January the council, while unanimously deploring any dimunition in the court set-up in the region, agreed such a group should convene after today’s election to present tangible proposals which would be acceptable to the SCS.

Mrs Thom told us: “The buildings in which the courts sit in Peebles [Rosetta Road] and Duns are already owned by the council and it was the unanimous view of our members that the savings which would accrue to the SCS, which leases the facilities, would be minimal if the court services were removed in these towns.

“The possibility of the leases being renegotiated on more favourable terms to the SCS should certainly be pursued.

“In our view any savings from closing Peebles and Duns would be more than eclipsed by huge extra costs to the public purse.

“If Peebles court business, currently administered at Selkirk, is transferred to Edinburgh Sheriff Court which already cannot cope with its workload, the taxpayer will have to pick up the tab and the principles of access to justice will be severely compromised.

“If Duns closes and that business goes to Jedburgh, that will expose a totally inadequate east to west public transport system and result in massive inconvenience for court users. And Jedburgh, as Sheriff Drummond rightly pointed out, is already struggling in terms of its facilites, with inadequate custody accommodation, consulting rooms for solicitors and parking. It would, in our view, cost a fortune to adapt the Jedburgh building, even if it was physically possible, to be the region’s only sheriff court.

“Selkirk is, like Jedburgh, owned by the SCS and is, by all accounts, the most expensive court to maintain, so the idea of shared services with the council, offers, we believe, a practical compromise solution.”

Mrs Thom said that each faculty, representing the legal profession in Roxburghshire, Berwickshire and Selkirk/Peebles, would send two delegates to a so-called dialogue event to be hosted by the SCS in Edinburgh on June 1.

She said: “There is more than a suspicion that, once this review process is completed, Peebles and Duns will close and Selkirk will be retained, and that will be hailed as a victory for consultation, but we believe it will be anything but.

“The legal profession is totally unanimous that a region of this size and diversity needs four courts and the public can rest assured we will do our best to achieve that.”