Court closures show the curious side of Scottish politics

So, the Scottish Government has decided to close a handful of courts and you’d think the sky had fallen in.

There’s clearly nowt so contrary as opposition politics.  Tavish Scott’s piece in the Scotsman railed against backbench SNP MSPs voting with their government’s proposals.  He finishes on a suitably melodramatic note, suggesting that the SNP “flowing tide that swamped all other parties and carried many surprised Nationalists into Holyrood” might just have turned.  Yet, in criticising the likes of Rod Campbell who voted in principle for Cupar sheriff court in his own constituency to close, Tavish ignores that the even more honourable Sir Menzies Campbell MP (he gets more gongs today) who, as constituency MP for the Neuk, is cheerleading for a UK government which (if the outraged bloggers and legal commentators are to be believed) is systematically dismantling the justice system south of the border.  Easier to support what your government gets up to when it isn’t in your own backyard, I’d reckon.

Tavish also ignores that when the junior partner in the Scottish Executive, many Lib Dem backbenchers regularly held their noses while voting for government policy and measures which brought them out in hives.  ASBOs for children anyone?

Even more curious has been Scottish Labour’s approach.  Seven days to save local justice screamed the hastily thrown together, last minute campaign to oppose the court closures.  Of course, their Keep Justice Local campaign conveniently ignores that the party supported the proposals to create a single police force.  But even if the party’s stance was based on some semblance of consistency and rigour, it doesn’t make political sense.  Are the courts in seats held by Labour?  No.  Are the courts in seats in which Labour is the main challenger?  No.  So why bother?  If I’d been Labour, I’d just have left the SNP to twist in the wind and for its backbenchers – who do all have courts being closed in their seats – to answer their local critics er, locally.

But let’s leave the politics of the curiosity shop to the side for a moment and consider the issue.  Will closing sheriff courts in the likes of Peebles, Kirkcudbright, Cupar, Dornoch and Haddington bring Scottish justice to its knees?  No.  Will shutting the doors on justice of the peace courts in towns like Irvine, Annan, Cumbernauld and Wick result in a diminution of our rights as citizens?  No.  In fact, said citizens will probably scarcely notice.

The fact is that not everyone is affected by a court closure the way they are affected by the loss of a school or local health facility.  You only need access to justice when you need it and for most of the population, that is a rare occurrence indeed.  Before jumping to their defence, did anyone bother to look at how much business passes through these sleepy hollows?  Did anyone do the maths and work out the cost of justice dispensed versus the costs of keeping old, crumbling and hard to heat buildings wind and watertight?

Apparently, such mundane issues matter not.  You cannot put a price on justice, argue these courts’ defenders (mostly local lawyers who make their living from them).  But you can.  And if you don’t put a price on the cost of providing justice here, then you are making it harder to afford to provide justice there.  Where it is needed.  When asked for a view on the proposed closures in their backyard, one sheriff clerk noted that they currently lose their Sheriff a day a week, putting pressure on their much busier schedule – it would be better to have the Sheriff in one place and ease things there.

The real problem with the proposed court closures is that the opportunity to re-model how justice is provided for has been lost.  The proposals for specialist courts – despite the evidence that where piloted, they have worked – were dumped early on on the grounds of cost.  There has been no attempt to look at current population trends and determine if we have courts where they need to be.  The starting point should have been a blank sheet to create a twenty year programme of shifting local justice out of inappropriate Victorian buildings and out of the way locations into state of the art facilities close to the people.  There should have been a tie-up with the Scottish Futures’ Trust’s hub programme, putting courts and court facilities into one stop shop buildings, where they are easy and friendly to access. 

But radical ideas of bringing justice into the heart of communities and close to the people, demystifying it and ensuring it joins up alongside other services people need like debt, benefits, housing and social work advice, cause some in the justice system to swoon.  They like the fact that they sit in ancient big piles apart from the populace.

In any event, whether by design or default, the Justice Secretary wasn’t minded to embark on such an adventure.  These are cuts which will trim the budget and not cause too much bother in the longer term.  But these measures provide further evidence of a worrying mindset at large – and on this, opponents are spot on.  This Justice Secretary has a centralising tendency which appears to run against the grain of SNP thinking in other areas.  First, the police force and the fire service, now courts.

The biggest shift in the court reform programme will be to centralise the high court at three locations – Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen.  That might save money and avoid the travelling circus but it does indeed mean thousands of victims and witnesses making a pilgrimage of hundreds of miles, often at their own expense, in order to see justice done.  The same applies to offenders but the state looks after them.  It’s not yet clear how this will be made to work in people’s rather than the process’s interests.

Also, the community justice system might also find itself becoming a nice, neat national body – proposals to reform the system have just been consulted on and this option had fewer potential downsides listed than the other two.

At the same time, over in another portfolio, the direction of travel is entirely local.  There will be a community empowerment bill, putting assets directly into the hands of communities;  community planning partnerships are being beefed up; the amount of local government spend controlled through ring-fencing by the centre is miniscule compared to in Labour’s day in the Scottish Executive; the mantras are early intervention, preventative spending and collaborative working.  It’s all about not just reconfiguring the provision of public sector services but totally reforming how and what we do, root and branch.

And the dichotomy at work here, at the heart of the Scottish Government, with two of the Cabinet’s big beasts apparently espousing and driving quite different approaches to public sector design and delivery is perhaps the most curious thing of all.

8 thoughts on “Court closures show the curious side of Scottish politics

  1. I have blogged on this – http://basedrones.wordpress.com/2013/04/22/scottish-court-closures-and-literally-access-to-justice/ . Sure, some of the people complaining might complain about most things the SNP do out of habit, but I think there is (or was) a case to be made for retaining some of the doomed courts.

    I identified three strands in my blog (access to justice/community vitality/pragmatism of remaining courts bulging at the seams coupled with losing local integration in places like Stonehaven). To those, various other points that have been raised in the debate, like the idea of justice being seen to be done in the local community and (in a Scotsman article by Iain Gray) a suggestion that moving work from Haddington to Edinburgh might actually cost more. Granted, I have not done the sums, but nor have I seen figures to convince me that the court closures are not the result of serial bean-counting by people who know the costs of everything but the value of nothing. Now, if there is a compelling case that the sums just don’t add up with these sheriff and JP courts surviving, then I think that is the only way the closures can be justified, but the costs to the other three things I mentioned are hefty. I wonder if the cost benefit analysis has been handled as sympathetically as it could have been.

    One last point. The “whataboutery” regarding the English court closures adds little to this particular Scottish debate. I cringed when Kenny MacAskill raised the closure of Alnwick in the Scottish Parliament whilst dodging a genuine question. I thought the whole point of devolution (and indeed independence) is to allow us as Scots to do our own thing without necessarily worrying about England.

  2. You raise the dichotomy of the SNP’s centralising tendency on courts, fire, police vs the seemingly localising tendency of the Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill. We must wait to see the draft Bill but it could be argued that past measures like the Council Tax freeze were not so much about devolving power to local authorities but in shifting the blame

  3. dear john, they huff and puff, but when they get back in to power, do the opposition parties, reinstate or reverse; no! it will all blow over and we’ll move along.

  4. Is it not just making a privileged few come up to date? That is how it looks to me,and what percentage of the people have business with the legal system ,and how often?

  5. I am not sure about the courts issue – tend to agree with you that it may be an opportunity lost in terms of redesigning services but equally I don’t actually think it is that big a deal.

    What I find quite interesting is the way lawyers react to any change to anything. It’s not just that they are against change – we all are probably, I don’t think many of us react to change in our workplace by thinking great, can’t wait! We all know there will be some level of hassle involved and so we grumble.

    But they seem to somehow think anything to do with the law should be exempt from the need to save money and deliver the most efficient services possible and that is in stark contrast to the public sector as a whole. Everyone I know working in the public sector is fully aware of the need to make money stretch further and maintain the best possible service with reduced budgets. No-one likes it but it’s a fact of life and people just get on with it.

    I suppose it is because lawyers are not actually a part of the public sector even though they are publicly funded. I can understand their gripes of course but there is also a part of me that thinks oh get over yourselves. Maybe that is uncharitable but they don’t make their case very well in my opinion.

  6. What do you say to the people of Montrose who are swapping a 20 minute bus journey to court for a 2 hour one because there’s no direct service to forfar? This is going to have a massive effect, not just in Angus but across rural Scotland.

    The hypocrisy here is from those SNP backbenchers who got elected as “local champions” turning around and bending over backwards for Kenny Macaskill to screw over their local communities.

    Just think, Labour may not have been in contention in those areas before, but after this campaign, next time may be different, when people ask themselves who those SNP MSPs really represent.

    • I would say local reps should be trying to get a better bus service sorted out or perhaps get a taxi fare made reclaimable.

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