11 Oct 12
Time to test whether the Scottish Court Service consultation on restructuring the courts is realistic in its ambitions
The Scottish Court Service consultation "Reshaping Scotland’s Court Services" bears the hallmarks of the current Lord President. One can detect similarities with Lord Gill’s review of the civil courts in the clear statements of why change is needed, the principles set out to shape the remodelling, the request to treat the whole as a complete package, and the undertone of determination to achieve what is seen as necessary reform – albeit the foreword invites the test of “a thorough period of public consultation” for the proposals presented.
One has some sympathy with SCS as it faces draconian financial constraints imposed by government. What will it actually be able to afford from a mere £4 million capital budget two financial years from now, compared with the £20 million-plus at its disposal just two years ago? One would hope that questions are being asked whether this level of funding will be sufficient over any sustained period.
Even if the closure programme proceeds as outlined, SCS will be left with redundant buildings, some of them listed, which may not be easy to sell. Will some of that £4 million have to be diverted for necessary maintenance of these?
As for the programme itself, discussed further in the October magazine, there has probably been an intake of breath around the country at the scale of the proposed closures. Despite the extensive consultations (for which SCS should be commended), with some courts winning a reprieve, there are those who maintain that proper account has simply not been taken of the practical difficulties likely to result from some of the closures and transfers.
One consequence of the “package” approach is that a lot of projections and assumptions have to be borne out for the goals to be achieved. The paper anticipates efficiencies as a result of the Gill and Bowen reviews being given effect, but precise outcomes of procedural reforms are difficult to predict. The projected timescales contain an “or as capacity becomes available” getout, but would that not in itself knock askew the budget projections?
Better to be realistic at the outset. Distance considerations aside, there are genuine concerns over capacity in some courts, and this is where a well researched and argued objection ought to have a prospect of success. However the ball is firmly in the court of solicitors and others interested to deliver on this, or the paper will indeed become a reality.