Shaping Scotland’s Court Services – ‘No-one would have wanted court closures

No area of Scotland’s public services is immune from the effects of the massive cuts in Scotland’s settlement from the UK Government, started by the Labour Party, and continued under the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition.

Scottish Court Service (SCS) faces a real terms reduction of 20% in its running costs by 2014-15 whilst its capital budget will reduce from £20 to £4m.

The Justice Committee has thoroughly scrutinised the proposals contained in ‘Shaping Scotland’s Court Services’, the SCS’s response to the consultation and recommendations for a future court structure in Scotland.

In advance of the consultation on court reforms John asked for dedicated Highland Domestic Abuse Court to be set up in Dingwall, a point he reiterated, with other issues, in his response to court closures consultation.

Following a series of meetings with Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill, and the Chief Executive of the SCS; John secured an assurance that, working with local authority partners, SCS will provide remote facilities for vulnerable witness in Dingwall, a commitment now extended to all areas facing court closures such as Dornoch, where business will transfer the short distance to Tain, and Rothesay where business will transfer to Greenock.

The forthcoming Victims and Witnesses Bill seeks to enhance the services provided to those important users of the courts and such facilities, in conjunction with a risk assessment of witnesses, will go a long way to ensuring concerns about victims sharing public transport with the accused.

Following this agreement, John met with Ross-shire Woman’s Aid (RWA) to hear again about their concerns about implications of move to Inverness for their clients where trials may be required.

RWA outlined benefit they saw of ‘clustering domestic violence cases’ on same day at Inverness Sheriff Court, an appropriate number of fixed days per month being dedicated ‘Domestic Violence Days’.

John agreed with RWA that the benefit of clustering cases at Inverness would ensure all support services can be present on the same day, with a consistency of treatment as expertise in domestic violence cases is built up by individual sheriff, in line with the move to have ‘specialist sheriff’ under the revised structure.

John held a further meeting with Cabinet Secretary for Justice last week and was delighted he confirmed that this approach should be adopted by all the agencies involved in dealing with domestic abuse cases where speed of processing is of the essence.

John has written to the Sheriff Principal, Derrick Pyle, asking for his assistance in putting in place this sensible approach as soon as possible and understand this good practice will be commended for action elsewhere.

Speaking after the vote taken to agree the SCS’s proposals John said:

“Whilst no-one would have wanted court closures, the level of cuts from the UK Government meant the status quo was never an option.

I am delighted that there has been some good come out of this process in the form of additional support for vulnerable witnesses and an undertaking to deal with domestic violence cases in this dedicated way now extended beyond the Highlands and Islands.”