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Plans to close 10 sheriff courts around the country in a bid to save money have been approved by the Scottish government.

The changes, proposed by the Scottish Court Service, will also see seven justice of the peace courts closed, with business transferred elsewhere.

In addition, the number of courts hearing sheriff and jury cases across Scotland will be reduced.

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said the reforms were “justified”.

Critics have argued the closures will limit access to justice.

It is estimated the changes could save the Scottish Court Service about £1.3m annually and a one-off initial saving of £3m.

Mr MacAskill said: “I believe that given the financial constraints we are all working under, these changes are justified and are compatible with our wider justice reforms.

“Unfortunately, the fragmented and outdated court system we inherited – where many smaller courts are not fit for purpose and are under-used – is no longer sustainable.”
The recommendations have been accepted by ministers and must now be approved by MSPs.

The reforms would see the closure of 10 of the existing 49 sheriff courts in Scotland, including nine co-located justice of the peace courts. These are:

Dornoch – with business going to Tain
Duns – with business going to Jedburgh
Kirkcudbright – with business going to Dumfries
Peebles – with business going to Selkirk
Rothesay (sheriff court only) – with business going to Greenock
Arbroath – with business going to Forfar
Cupar – with business going to Dundee
Dingwall – with business going to Inverness
Haddington – with business going to Edinburgh, and
Stonehaven – with business going to Aberdeen

The court service also proposes to close seven stand-alone justice of the peace courts at:

Annan – with business going to Dumfries
Irvine – with business going to Kilmarnock
Motherwell – with business going to Hamilton
Cumbernauld – with business going to Coatbridge
Portree – with business going to the local sheriff court
Stornoway – with business going to the local sheriff court, and
Wick – with business going to the local sheriff court.
The closures would come into effect between November this year and January 2015.

The justice secretary said the 10 sheriff courts facing closure accounted for just 5% of the court service’s total business.

He said the Scottish Court Service was “confident” it could deal with the business within a “smaller number of better equipped courts”.
New video conferencing facilities are being introduced in six northern courts, including at Kirkwall, Lerwick and Stornoway, and at four other locations.

Mr MacAskill said this would minimise the inconvenience of people having to travel to appear in court.

He added: “By making its proposed court closures and other changes to the handling of court business, SCS estimate they can save £1m a year in running costs and £3m in maintenance costs, money which can be better spent on improving services and facilities at a smaller number of courts.”

Other provisions recommended by the Scottish Court Service would see sheriff and jury cases heard at just 16 sheriff courts on the mainland and five island courts – at Lerwick, Kirkwall, Stornoway, Lochmaddy and Portree.

These changes would be phased in over the next 10 years.

The proposals have been met with opposition from the Law Society, unions and local MSPs.

Lewis Macdonald, Scottish Labour list MSP for the North East of Scotland, described the Scottish government’s approval of the recommendations “slap in the face” for all the local communities affected by the closures.

He added: “Only on Tuesday, Kenny Macaskill said he’d give proper consideration of the impact the closures would have on access to justice and on local economies. That proper consideration has taken him just three days.

“All those local communities and elected representatives who wanted to make a case for their local court, including members of his own party, have been told that they needn’t bother – ministers have their minds made up.”

In response to the announcement today, Austin Lafferty, President of the Law Society of Scotland, said:

“We are disappointed and concerned by the Scottish Government’s decision to accept the recommendations to close all ten sheriff courts as well as seven justice of the peace courts.

“We recognise the financial pressures facing the Scottish Court Service. However, we don’t believe closures on this scale are compatible with the commitment the government has expressed on widening access to justice. We are also concerned that this closure programme will fail to achieve significant financial savings in the long term.

“Even with the introduction of video conference links, it’s likely that some of the remaining courts, which are already at capacity, will struggle with the level of additional business, which in turn could slow down proceedings and increase costs.

“A number of the courts proposed for closure are busy and cover large geographical areas and populations These closures seriously threaten access to justice in many parts of Scotland and could lead to a long term decline in our justice system. The changes will force many court users to travel further distances, at greater expense and with the result that access to justice is limited, particularly for vulnerable people and those living in rural communities.

“Local courts are an integral part of communities across Scotland. A local court offers the opportunity to see justice done and to bridge the gap between crime in local communities and its detection and resolution.”