Courts are not funny places. Well, they can be. I’ve spent many a long day on the press benches of our seats of justice in Selkirk, Jedburgh, Peebles and, to a lesser extent, Duns.
I’ve had a few stints at the High Court in Edinburgh – both in the old parliament building tucked away behind ancient St Giles and in the more starkly-modern (inside at least) structure that once housed Edinburgh Sheriff Court. That’s on the other side of the Royal Mile from St Giles and is a neighbour of Deacon Brodie’s public house that was run for many years by a charming and spirited lady from Selkirk called Alice (she’d previously run Selkirk’s County Hotel) and who I believe now has her abode in Penicuik.
Jedburgh’s sheriff courthouse was for many years also home to the High Court. It’s a strange beast the High Court, because it’s really homeless. It wanders around on circuit, but that circuit has increasingly decreased and murder and rape haven’t been tried at Jedburgh for a long time.
But I recall when they were. And it was a jolly day out for the provost and magistrates. They paraded with His Lordship and enjoyed a fine lunch at one of Jedburgh’s finest establishments, with the poor ratepayer picking up the bill.
Courts can be funny at times. I recall one habitual offender who had a passion for alcohol and sacking his solicitor half-way through his trial just after the lunchtime adjournment which he (the accused, not the solicitor) had spent in a nearby pub. I laughed, but the sheriff didn’t, when the accused leaned over the bar of dock to ask a question and without any dignity for the occasion toppled head first into the well of the court.
I knew a sheriff once who, when he became frustrated at long-winded lawyers, would pull his wig forward and turn towards the press bench as if we could reinforce the patience that was obviously deserting him – obvious to all except the offending lawyer.
I mentioned that the High Court is a homeless body. And I fear that if Scottish Court Service mandarins get their way, that could be the future of justice in the Borders. The sheriff courts at Peebles and Duns have already been earmarked for closure. But this week the head of the court service admitted that Selkirk and Jedburgh could also go and a single justice centre created in Galashiels. Now that makes me laugh – with disbelief and frustration. A single court for the entire Borders won’t work.
Local sheriff Kevin Drummond has never been afraid to court controversy. And he has spelled out his fears that the cost implications haven’t truly been considered. He wants the whole process halted and alternatives explored. Now that makes sense.
There are times when we can laugh at the justice system, just as we can laugh at, or even with, any organisation.
But a justice system that isn’t truly local is no laughing matter – it’s actually rough justice for all concerned.