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Court closure programme would threaten justice: Society
Access to justice would come under threat, particularly for rural communities, if proposals to close a large number of sheriff and justice of the peace courts go ahead, according to the Law Society of Scotland.
In its submission on the Scottish Court Service consultation paper covering the potential closure of 11 sheriff courts and 16 JP courts, would threaten access to justice for local communities, the Society says that local courts have an important role within their communities and it is essential that access to justice remains core in the discussions on any future change.
It also states that the review of the courts must not be done in isolation, but should take into account reforms proposed in the Gill and Carloway reviews of civil and criminal procedure and the Bowen review of the sheriff and jury court, particularly in relation to Lord Gill's proposals for the introduction of summary sheriffs.
Austin Lafferty, President of the Society, said: "Public spending is under increasing pressure and we fully understand the need for the court service, like all parts of the public sector, to reduce operating costs and save money. However we don't believe that the measures proposed will necessarily achieve that, and they could well lead to a long term decline in access to our justice system. It is little wonder that these proposals have caused such concern in communities across Scotland, particular those in rural and remote areas.
"Widening access to justice has been highlighted by the Scottish Government as a priority in its recently published justice strategy. It is difficult to see how a court closure programme on this scale is consistent with that strategy."
Mr Lafferty commented that the closures suggested, and some of the other changes proposed, could not be easily reversed.
He continued: "Each proposed closure must be considered on a case by case basis to ensure that there would be actual savings rather than simply transferring costs from the SCS budget to that of local authorities or individual citizens. The proposals will mean that many people who need to appear in court will have to travel further and at additional cost."
The Society also anticipates that there would be difficulties for some of the remaining courts being able to cope with the level of additional business, which in turn could slow down proceedings and increase costs.
Stuart Naismith, convener of the Society’s Access to Justice Committee, commented that the consultation had nevertheless provided an opportunity to explore what changes could be introduced to ensure a sustainable system which met the needs of those who use it. "There would be benefits in improving efficiency by centralising civil cases, the vast majority of which are undefended, and in deploying new technologies, extending virtual case management and making more use of alternative dispute resolution, such as mediation and arbitration", he said.
Click here to access the full response.