Ian Swanson: No justice in voting to back closure of courts

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It’s hardly unusual for governments to get their way – but there was some surprise this week when Holyrood’s justice committee voted to approve a controversial programme of court closures across Scotland.

Two of the SNP members of the committee had previously spoken out against the proposals to shut courts in their own areas, but when it came to the crunch they backed the plan.

Committee convener Christine Grahame had campaigned to save Peebles Sheriff Court in her constituency and North East Fife MSP Rod Campbell said he still thought the closure of Cupar Sheriff Court, in his seat, was “bad news”. But they voted with their two SNP colleagues on the committee, and independent John Finnie, to rubber stamp the closures.

The Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem MSPs on the committee had had high hopes that at last one of them might break ranks and go against what they see as the iron discipline wielded by the SNP.

The committee’s decision prompted accusations that MSPs had been “spineless” and put their party before their constituents.

Conservative chief whip John Lamont said: “The SNP members had a chance to stand up for their communities, but instead took the cowardly way out to ensure they didn’t upset Alex Salmond.”

Ms Grahame insisted she had been persuaded by the fact Scotland’s most senior judge Lord Gill was supporting the closures. Mr Campbell said that despite his concerns about his own patch, his role on the justice committee required him to look at the bigger picture.

That might be seen as laudable objectivity, but a look at the ten courts now doomed to shut reveals some where business is light and a good case can be made for closure, while others clearly have a heavy workload and closure appears hard to justify.

Haddington Sheriff Court, in particular, seems a closure too far. Campaigners presented a strong argument about the difficulty and expense which will be involved in victims, witnesses, police officers, social workers and others travelling to Edinburgh for cases to be heard. The local knowledge of sheriffs, court staff and lawyers about the community and its problems will be lost.

East Lothian MSP Iain Gray pointed out Edinburgh Sheriff Court failed to meet the government’s target of dealing with 85 per cent of cases in 20 days, managing only 58.4 per cent compared to Haddington’s 83.8 per cent. And he warned the closure would not mean any savings for the public purse.

Mr Gray also cited Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill’s praise for the modern, one-stop-shop model of local justice, as seen Livingston, and pointed out that in Haddington the court, police, fiscal service, Citizens Advice Bureau and social work may not be in one building but are within 20 yards of each other in the centre of the town.

East Lothian Council was even willing to stump up more than £250,000, meeting more than half the cost of a maintenance backlog and contributing substantially to ongoing running costs.

The closure decision now means that from 2015, Haddington will have a large empty court building and a large empty fiscal’s office in the town centre and, according to council calculations, a £360,000 hole in its ­economy.

Holyrood committees are there to scrutinise government plans and point out failings. The people of East Lothian may understandably feel they have been let down on this one.