Council’s damning indictment of proposals to axe local courts

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NOTHING less than an unacceptable and flagrant breach of the principles for dispensing justice is the damning judgement on plans to axe courts in Peebles and Duns.

So agreed councillors, attending last week’s full session of Scottish Borders Council (SBC), and who unanimously backed the stinging indictment of the closure proposals from the Scottish Courts Service (SCS).

The SCS has proposed closing sheriff and justice of peace courts at Duns and Peebles, and transferring the business to neighbouring sheriff courts in Jedburgh and Edinburgh. SBC investigated the potential local impact of the moves and consequently put together the highly-critical formal response, strongly opposing the changes.

The consultation paper also proposes that sheriff-with-jury trials will now routinely be held in 16 sheriff courts, none of which are in the Borders.

This would mean, in future, existing courts in this region would only deal with trials before a sheriff where there is no jury.

SBC’s extensive concerns also include the greater travel distances for Borderers attending the court and the loss of the accused person’s historic privilege of being tried by his or her peers from the community where the alleged offence occurred.

The council is also concerned that Borders residents may lose the privilege of serving as a juror and a loss of access to specialist legal advice and justice services.

Chief executive Tracey Logan has now been instructed to seek a meeting with the SCS.

SBC executive member for corporate improvement and HR, Councillor Michael Cook (East Berwickshire, Ind), said a paragraph in the council report perfectly encapsulated both the adverse consequences of the SCS proposals and the fundamental lack of equity in the treatment of some of the Borders’ citizens compared to other parts of the country.

“It says – ‘the level of savings occasioned by the closure of the courts in Duns and Peebles is minimal, and is disproportionate to the negative impact occasioned on the Scottish Borders’,” said Mr Cook, who is also a solicitor. “For goodness sake, Peebles court, described as a ‘blueprint for Scotland’ by a former Depute First Minister, is owned by the council and rented by SCS at a little over £10k per annum.

“The cost of displacing everyone to Edinburgh would be infinitely greater.

“At present, with no support staff at Peebles and only the sheriff and his support required to attend, the burden and cost are minimal.

“As for Duns, the consultation document thoroughly misrepresents the position by failing to acknowledge that the police station with secure parking and cells is right next door to the court. Again, it has no permanent staff.

“In both cases, the minimal savings which might be eked out are grossly outweighed by the cost of forcing people to travel to courts which are inaccessible by any reasonable standard and which entail the loss of local justice.

“That people in Eyemouth cannot travel to Jedburgh and back on the same day is a flagrant breach of the principles laid down by the Judicial Office of Scotland.

“So, too, is the fact that people from Coldstream could not get to Edinburgh. Primary and secondary proposals are wholly inadequate.

“Our area has one of the lowest average wages in the country – to place an undue and disproportionate burden on people here to travel to and from justice to which they have an equal right with others is unacceptable.”