Sheriff court closure plans branded ‘hammer blow’

Haddington Sheriff Court is facing closure

Haddington Sheriff Court is facing closure

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PLANS to close Haddington Sheriff Court were condemned as “unacceptable” today amid warnings that the move threatened people’s access to justice.

Under proposals in a consultation document from the Scottish Court Service, cases currently heard in Haddington would be transferred to Edinburgh, requiring people from East Lothian to travel to the Capital to go to court.

A total of 11 sheriff courts are earmarked for closure.

East Lothian Labour MSP Iain Gray said closing Haddington Sheriff Court would be a “hammer blow” to the town.

He said: “Victims, witnesses and anyone seeking redress from the court would have the inconvenience of travelling into Edinburgh.

“Police officers will also spend more time away from front-line policing to attend court. Local law firms will lose business and so will our high street traders.

“There has been a court in Haddington for almost 900 years. It would be disgraceful if that did not survive a few years of SNP government.”

Figures in the consultation document show Haddington Sheriff Court sat for 312 days in 2011-12, dealing with 801 criminal cases and 1170 civil cases.

But the document said: “We are satisfied that the business of Haddington could be accommodated satisfactorily, and without detriment to existing waiting periods, in the sheriff court in Edinburgh.”

On the issue of people from across East Lothian having to travel to Edinburgh, it said: “While a few of the journeys are at the outer margin of what might be regarded as an acceptable daily commute, none is beyond daily travelling distance.”

Law Society president Austin Lafferty said: “Local courts have an important role within their communities and it is absolutely essential that access to justice remains the core consideration throughout this consultation process.

“Neither should we expect individuals to shoulder additional costs of attending courts that are difficult to reach and nor do we want to see, for example, an accused person travelling on the same bus as a witness on an extended journey.”

Lynn Henderson, Scottish secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union, which represents court staff, said: “There can be little doubt that the reasons behind these proposals are part and parcel of the swingeing cuts in public sector budgets.

“A properly resourced and funded justice system is a cornerstone of our democracy and that is what the people of Scotland need and deserve.”

SCS executive director Eric McQueen said: “Many of our court buildings were built in Victorian times and are expensive to maintain and difficult to adapt to modern needs.

“For most people, attending court is a rare experience and future court services will seek to reduce this requirement through greater use of technology and online services.”

iswanson@edinburghnews.com