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Local solicitor issues an SOS - Save Our court Service

Published: 8 Oct 2012 09:302 comments

CONTROVERSIAL plans to cut court services in the Borders could be "catastrophic" and prevent some of the region's most vulnerable residents gaining access to justice.

Peebles Sheriff Court.

CONTROVERSIAL plans to cut court services in the Borders could be "catastrophic" and prevent some of the region's most vulnerable residents gaining access to justice.

Local solicitor Iain Burke issued the warning in a letter to the Scottish Government's Cabinet Secretary for Justice Kenny McAskill after the Scottish Court Service announced proposals to close 11 sheriff courts across the country - including Peebles and Duns.

Under the plans, it is proposed business from these courts would be transferred to neighbouring districts, such as Selkirk or Jedburgh, while Sheriff and Jury trials could be moved to Edinburgh in future.

Mr Burke, of Galashiels based firm Bannerman and Burke, said: "The impact of the cuts already in place has been significant and the potential impact of further cuts could be catastrophic. That will have a direct effect on the availability of legal assistance to the public and could result in significant restriction of access to justice.

"The proposals by Scottish Courts Service with regard to the Courts in Lothian and Borders will have a further significant impact on firms like mine and may force some of those firms to reappraise what services they can actually offer to the public and in the worst case scenario may of course cause some Firms to be unable to continue."

The Scottish Courts Service has begun a three-month consultation outlining its plan.

It said having fewer court buildings will allow investment to be targeted to ensure the "best possible facilities and level of service is available for all court users but more particularly for victims, witnesses and vulnerable people".

However, Mr Burke insisted any savings to be made by closing the courts in Peebles and Duns would be minimal and, with a potential increase in travel costs and lost court days, could actually end up costing taxpayers more in the long term.

And he has urged the Cabinet Minister responsible to intervene to prevent what he described as the very real prospect of a miscarriage of justice.

Mr Burke continued: "These measures are not about administration of justice but are purely about saving money. They take no account of the impact on increased administration by Scottish Courts Service.

"There will undoubtedly be a significant increase in the number of lost days in Court as a result of the proposals. Whether by choice, by lack of funds or by it simply being logistically impossible for witnesses and accused persons to get to Edinburgh Sheriff Court on time, many cases will be put off because essential people are not there.

" Someone travelling from Coldstream or Langholm for instance does not have the advantage of a frequent public transport service and in any event would require to take two or three buses to make the journey to Edinburgh. There are very few bus services which actually run apart from on the main arterial routes of the A7 and A68 which will get witnesses or accused persons to Edinburgh for 10 o'clock in the morning. Again those lost Court days have not been taken into account.

"There does not appear to have been any joined up thinking or consideration in any of the cost cutting measures which have been put in place and until someone takes responsibility for looking at the administration of justice as a whole in Scotland the potential for significant miscarriages of justice through a lack of availability of legal services to the public and further erosion of the public's faith in the system itself is very real."

The Scottish Government has cut the SCS budget for 2013-14, with a further cut expected the following year A spokesman said: "The SCS operates independently of government but they are not immune from the financial pressures facing us all. This three-month consultation gives the people of Scotland the opportunity to have their say on the proposals the SCS are putting forward, to make more efficient use of the court estate, and we'd encourage them to make their views known.

"Any final proposals for court closures would need to come before parliament for approval."

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