I believe that justice should be administered as locally as makes practical sense.
Whilst my role is not to explain the position of the Scottish Government, it is fair to say that any administration would struggle to deal with the £1.3billion cut to the Scottish budget imposed by the UK Government. Savings are being sought across the public sector and the Court Service, with its aging estate and a multi-million pound maintenance backlog is not immune.
In an effort to head off the obvious focus which would fall on the considerably less busy rural courts, such as Dingwall, I asked the following question in Parliament: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/28862.aspx?r=7625&i=69717&c=1404563&s=Domestic%20abuse.
I had hoped to ensure that Highland’s Women’s Aid Groups were given the benefit of a dedicated court, a point I repeated when the Scottish Government consulted on court closures: http://johnfinniemsp.org/2013/04/09/john-comments-on-scottish-court-service-proposals/
The relatively low workload of many rural courts – Dingwall and its close proximity to Inverness guaranteed it would be hard to retain but I did try.
Of course there are many other initiatives in the justice sector at this time: a 37 year low crime rate; a range of disposals which do not require the accused to appearance in court and a growing awareness of growing range of ‘specialisms’ which will see a new tier of courts, and specialist Sheriffs introduced.
All that said, I was not prepared to see the closure of Dingwall Court without significant assurances about the well-being of vulnerable witness.
I held meetings with Cabinet Secretary for Justice and the Chief Executive of the Scottish Court Service and I am delighted to have secured protection for vulnerable witnesses in the form of new video link facilities in Dingwall.
I have suggested these video facilities are provided in conjunction with one of the Court Service’s public sector partner, Highland Council, NHS Highland or Police Scotland and I look forward to that being progressed at a very early stage.
I understand that, in the longer term, the Highlands will enjoy a ‘Justice Centre’, a new court building where the priority will rightly be given to victims and witnesses. Meantime, I am pleased that vulnerable witnesses who might otherwise have required to have travelled to Inverness will have their important needs met locally.