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.