Court concern as decision lies with Holyrood

FORFAR SHERIFF COURT: Saved by the Scottish Court Service though there may be reprecussions to come.
FORFAR SHERIFF COURT: Saved by the Scottish Court Service though there may be reprecussions to come.

THE SCOTTISH Court Service (SCS) has proposed that Arbroath Sheriff Court be closed with all business in Angus to be transferred to Forfar.

And local solicitors are worried about the repercussions this move could have on the county if accepted by the Scottish Parliament.

Hamish Watt, the Angus member of the Law Society of Scotland, said there is consternation over the decision: “I am extremely disappointed that the proposals have been made for Arbroath Sheriff Court to close.

“I am concerned that the coastal area of Angus, with a population of close to 40,000 people, will not be grossly inconvenienced.

“These people now have to seek justice at Forfar Sheriff Court where transport routes are inadequate. This also has an effect on the administration of justice and those attending court will now have to share transport - both the accused and witnesses.

“I am also concerned that the law firms which have set up solely in Arbroath will have a reduction in work and this may have an ongoing effect in regards to unemployment.”

In their response to the previous consultation undertaken last year regarding possible Sheriff Court closures, the SCS accepted that there were issues arising from the closure of Arbroath.

The report said: “We accept that the closure of Arbroath will result in additional travel distance, time and cost to some court users in travelling to Forfar.

“However, the sample data of civilian witnesses cited to Arbroath during 2011/12 shows that for around 38 per cent of witnesses the additional journey to Forfar would be less than 10 miles, with 12 per cent of witnesses having a shorter distance to travel than that which they currently undertake.

“People resident in Arbroath commute more frequently to the larger population centres to access other services, including specialist medical services, and as for most people a visit to their sheriff court is a relatively rare event, we consider the journey from Arbroath to Forfar to be a reasonable undertaking.”

The report continues: “Respondents also questioned whether there was sufficient capacity at Forfar to accommodate the Arbroath business.

“Forfar Sheriff Court currently has two courtrooms capable of providing 500 court sitting days per annum. In 2011/12 the number of sheriff court sitting days at Arbroath and Forfar was 318 and 245 respectively – a total of 563. The corresponding figures for the Justice of the Peace Courts at Arbroath and Forfar are 50 and 28 respectively.

“Consolidation of all court business in a single location offers greater opportunity to manage business more efficiently and we are confident that with such efficiencies the conjoined business of Arbroath and Forfar could be accommodated within the current footprint of the courthouse at Forfar.

“The standard of the service offered by Arbroath Sheriff Court was viewed more positively by respondents and was contrasted with the situation in Forfar, where delays were thought to be more common. The average period between first calling of a summary criminal case and trial in Arbroath and Forfar as at March 2013 are similar (10 and nine weeks respectively).

“The corresponding period for civil business, between allowing and calling a case for proof is 12 weeks in Arbroath and eight weeks in Forfar.”

Anne McKeown, a Forfar-based solicitor with Thornton’s, said: “I think from the faculty’s point of view there is sufficient business for the two courts and the ideal situation would be for the status quo to be maintained. I would say that in terms of buildings, Forfar is more adaptable as it is a stand alone site compared to Arbroath. Our main concern is that people will still have access to justice.”

William Boyle, a solicitor with a Forfar-based office, said: “My arguments that have been made before remain valid.

“Forfar Sheriff Court, in terms of accommodation and transport links, will not be able to cope with the extra demands of serving the whole of Angus.

“There is a need for both courts in Angus. There are other ways to save money.”

He continued: “My worry is that there is a long term agenda by the SCS to eventually close all of small town courts and move business to the big cities. The Nationalists are going to create a wasteland in the communities that need them most.”

A spokesman for SCS said: “SCS published its proposals last week and presented them to the Justice Secretary.

“Where we recommend court closures it will be for Scottish Ministers to consider and take statutory orders to the Scottish Parliament. The final decision on whether a court should close rests with the Scottish Parliament.”