Access to courts and justice must be universal. This has to be our starting point when thinking about proposed court closures.
Haddington Sheriff Court has been earmarked for closure, along with nine other rural sheriff courts. But should it be? We already know the impact of losing local banks, libraries, post offices and other community services. If Haddington and the other courts are closed, access to justice in local communities will suffer.
Haddington Sheriff Court has a small number of rooms and is in a listed building owned by the local authority. Savings from its closure would be moderate, and we would question if they are realisable at all as courts, such as Haddington and Cupar (also earmarked for closure), located in local authority buildings, and Peebles, which is beside the police station, may not be able to be put up for sale.
We are of course aware of very real financial pressures on the public purse, but believe the need to reduce spending has to be balanced against everything the court brings to the town – something that needs to be asked for each and every proposed closure. The plans to close ten of Scotland’s 49 sheriff courts have been presented as a package but different issues crop up across different areas of the country and each proposed closure should be assessed on its own merits.
That’s why we want to see further cost analysis, including both expenditure, extra cost to police, local authorities and other public services, and lost economic activity in the communities in which these courts are to be closed. Further discussion is required across the public sector to find out if savings could be generated in other ways.
The existence of a court in these towns is significant: it can make a real difference to their vitality and to their civic presence. We need to look at the entire issue of court reform and potential closures in the round before we lose valuable local services – only to regret it in future years.
Bruce Beveridge is president of the Law Society of Scotland