Bleak picture as councillors condemn courts proposal

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VICTIMS, witnesses, police officers, and solicitors all having to travel for miles, as well as accused persons being dumped out on the street on bail, far from home and left to find their own way back to the Borders – that will be the reality for Borderers using the justice system if the Scottish Courts Service eventually opts to close sheriff courts in the region, according to councillors at last week’s full session of Scottish Borders Council.

Three motions condemning any such possible closure moves – the Scottish Courts Service is only currently at the review stage – were lodged last week.

They were from Councillor Gavin Logan (Tweeddale East, Con) over any closure threat to Peebles Sheriff Court; from Councillor Kenneth Gun (Selkirkshire, SNP) over Selkirk Sheriff Court and from Councillor Trevor Jones (Mid Berwickshire Con) over Duns Sheriff Court.

Mr Logan said he was delighted to propose a motion endorsed by all his Tweeddale colleagues, regardless of party political affiliation. He went on to highlight a recent statement by the dean of the Selkirkshire and Peeblesshire faculty of solicitors, who said, given the geography of the Borders, the faculty could not see any economies of scale if Borders courts were closed.

Mr Logan said this assertion, together with the view that, with an Edinburgh Sheriff Court struggling to cope with its own workload the result could be that motions in Borders cases would take two months to be dealt with, would result in an unacceptable situation.

And he added that such a timescale would have a devastating impact on cases dealing with family matters involving children.

“There is no doubt in my mind that closing Peebles Court will be a backward step,” said Mr Logan.

“While costs are important, it is even more important that justice is delivered locally and seen to be delivered locally. Peebles has had a court for centuries and the people of Peeblesshire have always had the benefits of local accessibility.

“At this time we are in a pre-consultation stage and I feel strongly that it is important that when we have the opportunity to have input into the consultation, we have a robust and well-thought-out case to put forward for Peebles.”

It was Councillor Michael Cook (East Berwickshire, Ind), a former solicitor, who flagged up the difficulties court closures would mean for many people.

“This would be bad news – justice should be dispensed as locally as possible,” he said. “At the moment a defendant arrested in Eyemouth can be produced the next morning at Duns.

“But if local courts were closed, you could have someone arrested in Jedburgh and then have to be taken to court in Haddington, for example. After appearing, they might then be booted out on bail and expected to find their own way home. This would be a ludicrous proposal.

“Justice costs money. But this reflects a complete disregard for that reality. I think this is something you need to spend money on if you don’t want to adversely affect justice itself.”

Mr Jones said any such closure would be short-sighted.

“I hope the Scottish Courts Service considers full consultation with the local community to see the damage that would be done.”

Councillor Vicky Davidson (Selkirkshire, LD) highlighted a particular concern, saying: “I wouldn’t want to see us getting dragged into a situation where one court was being pitted against another.”

As Mr Logan’s motion and the other two basically stated the same position, it was agreed they should be all rolled into one single statement and this was endorsed by a vote of 31-1 by the council.

It was also agreed to send a letter outlining the motion and concerns to the Scottish Courts Service and to form a short-term working group to examine the implications of closures for the civil and criminal justice service in the Borders.