Justice not served by closures

Solicitor Ian Burke at Peebles Sheriff Court in Rosetta Road.
Solicitor Ian Burke at Peebles Sheriff Court in Rosetta Road.

Court reporting has been very much a large chunk of my life as a reporter – so there was more than a tinge of sadness and lots of anger when one of my regular haunts closed its doors last week.

Peebles Sheriff Court was where I spent many a Wednesday chronicling the wrong-doings of the good and the not so good of that fair county.

The sheriff court in Duns ended its role as a centre of justice for Berwickshire yesterday. This wasn’t a court I covered much, but I was there when Sheriff James V. Paterson presided over the hearing at the start of what became known as the Hawick Lady Riders Row. M’Lord came down on the side of the ladies, dismissing, if I recall correctly, with disdain the case put forward by the late Sandy Stevenson (solicitor and common riding secretary) that – in layman’s terms – what had aye-been should stay aye-been.

Sandy wasn’t the only loser that day. I was there for BBC Radio Scotland. The television side of Auntie Beeb had sent a cameraman and I was to be his soundman. After the decision, I dashed outside to join up, literally, with the man with the camera. I was handed a mic and plugged in with a long trailing cable. I was a virgin TV soundman, and boy did it show. The main players appeared and took off at speed. So did we, in hot pursuit. I should have followed the man with the camera. But he went one side of a lamppost and I went the other and mic and camera and cameraman and soundman became embarrassingly detached.

Peebles Sheriff Court used to sit at the Tweed Bridge end of the High Street. The building is now a restaurant and the court was reconvened, after a three-year delay, at the council offices in Rosetta Road where it was joined by a new police station.

The old court was where I had another failing – this time of the legal type. I was covering a Fatal Accident Inquiry into the drowning of a lad of 16 who was on a residential school outing to the town.

Newspapers and broadcasters cannot name a person under the age 17 during such hearings, but sheriffs have a discretion. During the lunch break, I spoke with the clerk of the court, who I knew well, and asked I could make a submission to the sheriff when the inquiry resumed. The sheriff agreed to hear me. My submission was simple. The boy had been named in newspaper reports at the time of the unfortunate accident and his name and address had appeared in a public notice announcing where and when the inquiry would be held. Surely there was little sense in not being allowed to name him now. Strangely, no party to the inquiry objected to what I sought, but the sheriff ruled against me. My brief time as a brief was a failure.

I don’t get into court much now and sadly that’s the same for many young journalists. That’s a shame. My baptism in court reporting was the old burgh, or police, courts. And as a junior I was landed with the Saturday custody courts at Selkirk, when the bleary and bruised were brought up from the cells. Murder and rape followed at the High Courts in Jedburgh and Edinburgh. There are no High Courts in Jedburgh now. And, with the closure of Peebles and Duns, local justice has become even less local.