Sheriff puts defence case for courts in the Borders

0
Have your say

WITH local solicitors due to meet next week to discuss how to fight a proposal to close three of the region’s four sheriff courts, the most senior member of the Borders judiciary has added the considerable weight of his opposition to the move.

Sheriff Kevin Drummond has, over the past 12 years, regularly presided at shrieval sittings in the threatened courts at Peebles, Duns and Selkirk, as well as Jedburgh which is the only court earmarked to be retained in a Scottish Court Service (SCS) discussion document – Future Court Structures (FCS) – issued last September.

Facing a 20 per cent cut in its future revenue budget and with 40 per cent of its current expenditure going on court buildings, the SCS is inviting submissions on a review of its estate, although it was keen to stress yesterday: “There are no proposals for court closures at the moment.”

However, the document propounds the closure of up to 15 of Scotland’s 49 sheriff courts, including Peebles and Duns, because they are not busy enough. And Selkirk, understood to be the most expensive local court to maintain, is also in the line of fire 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.

In January, Scottish Borders Council unanimously passed a motion deploring any court closures in the region, its proposer Councillor Gavin Logan predicting a depressing scenario of victims, witnesses, police officers and lawyers being denied ready access to criminal and civil justice.

The Selkirkshire and Peebles faculty of solicitors has also voiced strong opposition, its dean Pat Thom revealing her colleagues will be joined on Tuesday by faculty members from Berwickshire and Roxburghshire for a crunch meeting ahead of submitting its view to the SCS.

In his carefully-researched and forensic 23-page submission, issued to local lawyers this week, Sheriff Drummond says the proposal to close three courts had never been put to him directly.

“I find this a little surprising as I have been presiding over all the Borders courts over 12 years and I am intimately familiar with their operation.

“The [flawed] approach adopted by the proposal is suggestive of someone within the system having looked at a map and looked superficially at court statistics.”

Sheriff Drummond goes on: “Lest there be any doubt on the matter, I say that the proposal to close Selkirk, Duns and Peebles, leaving Jedburgh to be the only court in Borders region, quite simply will not work and, if implemented, will require to be revisited sooner rather than later.

“I would urge in the provision of court services in the Borders that the historic principle of small rural courts and a travelling sheriff should not be discarded lightly.

“Every consideration must, of course, be given to appropriate reductions in costs ... but careful examination of the present arrangements may well disclose that they represent a model for the provision of rural justice.”

Turning specifically to the scenario of Jedburgh becoming the only court in the region, Sheriff Drummond states: “It would be a grave risk to assume the building and its facilities are physically capable of handling the whole daily court business, together with the whole JP court business, of the Borders.

“I have no hesitation in saying the building is simply incapable of handling that volume of business.”

A spokesperson for the SCS told TheSouthern yesterday: “There are a number of significant justice reforms which will affect how the SCS will deliver services to the courts in the future.

“Major changes will arise from Lord Gill’s review of civil courts, Sheriff Principal Bowen’s review of sheriff and jury trials, and recent recommendations contained in Lord Carloway’s report. The SCS must prepare for these changes and develop its plans for the future. As a part of this process, we are reviewing the current court provision throughout Scotland.

“The SCS has shared illustrative ideas with its staff and members of the judiciary on how the service might develop and now plans to hold discussions with organisations who are the main court users.

“There are no proposals for court closures at the moment. After these discussions, the SCS will develop proposals for consideration by the SCS board. If any proposals emerge which would require the closure of a court in Scotland, a full public consultation would be held and ultimately a decision taken by the Scottish Parliament.”