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President's column

17 September 12

Government plans that are likely to mean the closure of a number of local courts around Scotland are the utmost priority for the current presidential year

by Austin Lafferty

The presidency of the Law Society of Scotland is a year long. Once you’re in it, time slips by almost unnoticed and I find myself already a quarter way through. In these days of the Olympics, the idea of what Lafferty’s Legacy might be is hovering about. The main thing I want to leave is in one piece, at the end of the natural term, and for those who watch me pass by to say: “Ah, there goes Austin Lafferty – at least he didn’t mess anything up.” We’ll see.

But that then makes one ask what the main challenges are this presidential year. Legal aid cuts is a hardy annual; ABS is growling away in the bowels of the Colosseum before being let out on to the arena; and getting the profession fitter for the general multi-dip recessional is what makes my heart beat faster.

The biggie is likely to be something else – court closures. Or court restructuring, as it is formally billed. I have, as presidents do, been hiking out, up, down and across to local solicitor faculties and associations, to find out what members think in Wick, Castle Douglas, Oban and Dumbarton, and this is the issue that always starts the Q & A part of the visit. I was in Stranraer recently and the thought of, amongst other things, all its sheriff and jury work going to Ayr just appalled the solicitors, who see clients and expertise disappearing from their currently busy town. In Cupar they are deeply concerned that court work will disappear to Dundee and/or Kirkcaldy. Every town has a concern about change that will affect both solicitor and client, and indeed witnesses and other members of the public.

No one seriously doubts that there are inefficiencies in our court estate, along with savings to be made, and some closures and moves of work are certainly worth investigating. We need to be careful that the Government’s capital saving on one ledger is not just the cause of vast increases in cost in another, or worse, increased costs for members of the public attending court, which they can ill afford. Down at ground floor level, it is sometimes hard enough to get all the players in a case or a trial to their local court, so how much more time, money and justice would be lost in making people go to another town? What does an unemployed penniless accused do when released from Dundee Sheriff Court, if he lives in Gateside?

To be fair, the Scottish Court Service’s dialogue events and recent written presentation were balanced pieces of work and show that the voices of interested parties in the world of criminal courts are being heard. Thanks to the contributions of solicitors, faculties, the Law Society of Scotland and others, some of the underlying or less obvious issues are being made plain. And as the consultation proceeds, I am sure the Society will play its part in marshalling the forces of common sense and experience in advising and warning the Government as to the consequences, unforeseen or otherwise, of individual and generic changes.

One aspect of the exercise that will be of interest is the remote or virtual hearing. When Sheriff Principal Taylor took over at Glasgow Sheriff Court some years ago, I got the shock of my life to be phoned at my office by him, in the process of sorting out some minor administrative calling of a case. I think I even stood up at my desk when he was put through. There has been a growth, maybe steady rather than exponential, of moving cases along remotely, but when I was in the USA and Canada recently, I was struck by the commercial provision of a conference call facility that lawyers paid into along with the judges to have most if not all non-evidentiary hearings done by phone. The distances over there are such that it may often be a three-hour car journey to do a three-minute hearing. Cheaper for the lawyer to pay the $50 per hearing and stay in his or her office. Thousands of firms are signed up to this already.

When the court consultation was first mooted, I jokingly predicted the passing of the Skype (Scotland) Act 2013. I am not so sure now it was a joke.

So I must ask all of you doing court work or affected by possible changes in court provision to get together with your local faculty, create a pool of information and experience, and feed that data into us at the Society (not exclusively – speak to your MSPs and ministers as well: do what you democratically deem right). That way we can build up our evidence and make a more effective case to Government.

I suspect this process will rumble on beyond the end of my tenure, but while I am here, I will treat it as the utmost priority.

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