Jenny Marra  : Court Closures (Speech in the Justice Committee debate in the Scottish Parliament - Sheriff Court Districts Amendment Order 2013 (SSI 2013/152) ; Justice of the Peace Courts (Scotland) Amendment Order 2013 (SSI 2013/153)

11 June 2013

 I begin by focusing my remarks on the closure of Arbroath and Cupar sheriff courts, and the resultant transfer of business to Dundee sheriff court.

The impact on Dundee of the Scottish Court Service’s plans, which the cabinet secretary has accepted, is far from clear.

Although those plans recognise the full transfer of business from Cupar to Dundee, they leave the door open for the transfer of business from Forfar to Dundee in future.

I would like the cabinet secretary to give us more detail on those proposals and how he plans to do that.

In light of Eric McQueen’s admission to the committee three weeks ago that further court closures are planned, are we to assume that more courts, such as Forfar, are being considered for closure?

Kenny MacAskill: I know that the member was absent when the Lord President and the Scottish Court Service chief executive gave their evidence, but I ask her to accept that these proposals come from them. It is not a decision that I make. Does she not accept that any changes come from the Lord President and the chief executive of the Scottish Court Service, and that she would have to ask them about future matters, as she could have done at the previous committee meeting, when she was absent, or as she could do now through correspondence?

Jenny Marra: I do not accept what the cabinet secretary is saying—

The Convener: Before we go further, I should say that Ms Marra was absent on Parliament business.

Jenny Marra: I do not accept what the cabinet secretary says, because the proposal is being put to Parliament by his Government.

As we have said previously, he can seek to pass the buck to the Lord President, to the Scottish Court Service, or to anyone he likes, but he is sitting before the committee today, these are his proposals and his budget, and he must take responsibility for them. I would therefore like clarification of his future plans.

I would like to know specifically how the cabinet secretary expects Dundee sheriff court to handle seamlessly an increase in business because of the business coming in from Cupar and Arbroath.

Those who are in the know are clearly and vocally opposed to the proposals.

The Sheriffs Association had this to say about the proposal to close Cupar sheriff court and transfer business to Dundee:

“We are very concerned that the existing accommodation in Dundee simply does not have sufficient capacity in terms of appropriate court rooms and sufficient court days to deal timeously with all the sheriff and jury business envisaged, never mind the additional civil business. The consequence will be not merely delay in terms of justice delayed being justice denied: it may be that time bars, in custody or on bail, will simply not be able to be met. We are unaware of detailed analysis or information being available to assess these justifiable concerns. No final and irreversible decision on closure of Cupar Sheriff Court should be taken without such information.”

Those are not my words but the words of the Sheriffs Association.

We simply do not have enough information to make any decisions like those that we are being asked to make today.

We have already seen the business case for closure torn apart by the forensic accountancy that was done in the case of Haddington.

When we look at the Government’s proposals not just for the closure of more courts in future but for the wider reform of the justice system, the landscape becomes more uncertain and the impact for Dundee more unclear.

As I have said in the chamber, the cabinet secretary’s proposed removal of corroboration, the cuts to legal aid—he has already voted those through the Parliament—and the alteration of the exclusive competence of the Court of Session that will result in more personal injury cases moving down to the sheriff court will have an impact on the business going through our courts.

It cannot be argued, as he has tried to do in the chamber, that fewer cases today means fewer cases tomorrow, particularly when the Government is trying to put all this legislation through the chamber at the moment.

I put it to the cabinet secretary that the Government is giving up on many elements of local justice in our communities.  

We are seeing a fall in the number of prosecutions and an increase in the use of fiscal fines.

The closure of local  courts is in many ways sending out a signal to Scotland that he is giving up on local justice.

As I said at the start, the cabinet secretary continues to pass the buck on this.

He says that the Lord President and the Scottish Court Service make operational decisions.

Well, the cabinet secretary makes the political decisions, and these are his decisions.

Even if we accept that the Lord President and the Scottish Court Service have a role to play, we must also accept that the cabinet secretary is the democratically elected decision maker with responsibility to set this budget and make laws for our justice system.

No one else can do that, and we in the committee and in the Parliament are those responsible for approving those laws.

It is time that the cabinet secretary took responsibility for the 80 per cent cut in the Scottish Court Service budget, which has not been replicated across other Scottish Government budgets.

We should not be satisfied with the closure of courts across Scotland being hidden behind the Scottish Court Service consultation and then brought to Parliament in the form of statutory instruments.

I would like to be reflective for a moment.

I believe that, in 10, 20 or 30 years’ time, we will look back on these proposals and this Government’s decision with a lot of regret.

I think that we will say in years to come that justice is best done in our local communities by juries of local peers and judgments by sheriffs who have local knowledge.

We will want to recreate our local court system, which has survived, as Iain Gray said, for 500 years.

This is a very short-term proposal.

When 95 per cent of consultation responses were against these plans and both Angus and Fife councils have unanimously voted to oppose the closure of Arbroath and Cupar sheriff courts, it is only right that MSPs from those areas and from all areas of Scotland where courts are closing stand up today for those whom they represent.

I urge fellow members of the Justice Committee to support Lewis Macdonald’s motions to annul.

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