Will Justice be served?

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CLOSURE of Stonehaven Sheriff Court would be ‘‘a major blow to justice.’’

That’s the view of Nanette Milne MSP, who has strongly criticised the Scottish Government following its decision last Friday to approve plans to close 10 courts, including Stonehaven.

The Justice Committee is now seeking views on the recommendation, trying to discover what impact the closures would have on communities.

Ms Milne, Scottish Conservative MSP for the North East, said this week that she welcome the news that the committee would hold an inquiry into the plans.

She told the Leader: “The closure of Stonehaven Sheriff Court would represent a major blow to justice being delivered to communities in the North-east. It is also a decision which I believe the SNP will come to regret.

CONCERNS

“I hope that the inquiry which the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee is to undertake into the proposed restructuring of court services will provide an opportunity for the concerns to be taken on board by the Parliament and for SNP Ministers to be held to account.

“The potential damage which the closure of Stonehaven Sheriff Court will have to the delivery of justice to communities in the North-east cannot be underestimated, and I hope that this will present a last-minute opportunity to make SNP Ministers see sense.

“Courts that are already overstretched are now in line for yet more work, and that will lead to lengthy and costly delays.

VICTIMS

“Closing a fifth of the country’s sheriff courts will also be of huge inconvenience to victims and witnesses, who already find themselves involved in the justice system through no fault of their own.

“These measures have not been correctly thought through, and have even been worsened by the fact the remaining sheriff courts will have to also take on extra civil business.”

Justice Committee Convener, Christine Grahame MSP, said: “It is vital that we get the full picture of how these proposals from the Scottish Court Services may impact on everything from court users to the provision of legal services and access to justice.

“Our call for evidence asks people in the communities directly affected by the proposed closures across Scotland how they feel about the changes?

‘‘Do they feel that travelling further to a sheriff court as a witness will affect their access to justice, or do they feel that the reforms will offer users an improved and specialist service in a concentrated area?

‘‘We also hear from local sheriffs that sometimes the greatest sanction for the guilty party can be the threat of being named and shamed in the local press who cover the courts – so how would the proposals affect the deterrent of local media coverage?”

The changes, proposed by the Scottish Court Service, recommend the closure of Stonehaven Court in May next year, with business moved to Aberdeen Sheriff Court.

The recommendations were accepted by ministers last Friday and must now be approved by MSPs.

A spokesperson for the Scottish Court Service said: “The Justice Secretary has now sent draft Orders to the Scottish Court Service and the Lord President which will enable the necessary legislative changes to be made in the Scottish Parliament to implement the proposed court closures.

“The Scottish Court Service will be required to consult with relevant key stakeholders on these Orders before deciding whether to formally consent. Once approved, the Orders will be laid in the Scottish Parliament where they will be considered by the Justice Committee.”

Other opposition parties have also hit out at the S decision.

North East Liberal Democrat MSP Alison McInnes said: “I have serious reservations about the closure.

‘Shifting cases to Aberdeen will cause major inconvenience for people travelling to court - especially for those coming from south of Stonehaven.

“Add to that the fact the Aberdeen court is already extremely busy, and we could soon see a situation where increased delays in the justice process are inevitable.”

North-East Labour MSP Lewis Macdonald described the closure as “the wrong thing to do”.

He added: “There is pleanty of evidence from the local community that it will take away local justice.”

Justice secretary Kenny MacKaskill has said the said the changes were “justified and are compatible with our wider justice reforms.”

n The Justice Committee is now asking for written evidence to be submitted electronically (preferably in word processing format i.e. microsoft word or apple pages) by email to: justice.committee@scottish.parliament.uk. Hard copy written submissions should be sent to: Justice Committee Clerks, Room T2.60, Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh, EH99 1SP.

All submissions should be made before midday on Tuesday, May 21.