Just what is going on with Court closures?

CONTROVERSY about the proposed closure of Arbroath Sheriff and JP Courts continues unabated, and has been fired by the news that Forfar Court will have to be extended to cope with the additional workload.

Angus Council has been approached with a view to selling the Forfar Court’s annexe building to the Scottish Courts Service (SCS). No possible price has been mentioned.

Campaigners have stated that the Arbroath Court is the busier, with better existing facilities, both for dealing with civil and criminal cases, and for the convenience of the public, Police and the legal profession.

Although the closure of Arbroath (and nine other Scottish Courts), has been widely reported as having been accepted by the Scottish Government, the issue still has to be debated, and this is set for May 21. The Cabinet Secretary for Justice will give evidence on June 4.

The apparent indication of a done deal has angered many campaigners, including Arbroath solicitor Nick Whelan, who led the campaign for retention, a campaign which both the Montrose Review and the Arbroath Herald supported.

Mr Whelan is reported as saying that he was astonished that ‘negotiations’ are under way for the Forfar annexe while the Justice Committee is asking for further evidence.

He said that clearly Forfar is not fit for purpose, because some £1.3 million would have to be spent on catch-up maintenance; as opposed to £100,000 at Arbroath.

Mr Whelan feels the exercise makes no financial sense, and that the more cost-effective option by far is to retain the Arbroath Court.

The Justice Committee has embarked on what some may see as a face-saving exercise and has asked for more evidence of how their proposed Court reforms will affect local access to 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 court 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?”

A further consultation on the closures will now be carried out by SCS, and it is anticipated that orders to close the courts will be laid in the Scottish Parliament before the summer recess and considered by the Justice Committee. Details of the call for evidence can be found in the Current Business section of the Justice Committee’s web page, http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/CurrentCommittees/29845.aspx

Among those who believe that the Justice Committee is charging blindfolded towards the wrong decision in Angus is North East MSP Alex Johnston, who said the Scottish Government is riding roughshod over concerns expressed by the legal profession and local businesses who have argued passionately against closure at Arbroath.

He added that campaigners were told the decision to close the courts would come first before the Scottish Parliament, so looking for additional accommodation now is breathtaking arrogance.