“The virtue of justice consists in moderation, as regulated by wisdom.” —Aristotle
Tuesday May 21st sees a meeting of Holyrood’s Justice Committee that has serious implications for how the Scottish Courts Service administers justice. As part of the Scottish Government’s exercise in belt-tightening in these troubled times, the SCS has proposed closing 10 of the 49 sheriff courts around the country, with a heavy preponderance in South-East Scotland that would close Haddington, with all court business transferred to Edinburgh.
Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said the reforms were “justified” and claimed a £3m initial saving, with further annual savings of £1.3m. Duns and Peebles, along with three others, would also close, with business going within 20 miles. These five are justified in the SCS proposals by a “low volume of business”. On the other hand, Haddington, along with four others, is chosen because of “a close proximity to another”. These are:
- Haddington transferred to Edinburgh (19 miles)
- Arbroath transferred to Forfar (15 miles)
- Cupar transferred to Dundee (14 miles)
- Dingwall transferred to Inverness (14 miles)
- Stonehaven transferred to Aberdeen (15 miles)
Drawing on the largest population and being shifted the greatest distance, there is an argument that Haddington should not be included in that tally. But far more cogent an argument is that real justice—the kind that is more likely to work than the more primitive and draconian form forced on cities by their greater social problems—will be lost.
Not only does East Lothian exhibit a very difference profile of crimes and criminals than does Edinburgh, they have been putting creative efforts into developing a better justice system through supporting community police officers, specialised police teams and their own squads of community wardens and ASBO officers that help cover ‘nuisance’ crimes that are often overlooked in cities. As a result, crime statistics have been dropping faster in East Lothian than in Edinburgh and resident surveys show much smaller fear of crime.
Closing Haddington Sheriff court and mixing the magistrates there in with those in Edinburgh will result in Edinburgh-style justice. That may be appropriate in city conditions. But banging the boys up in Saughton, as opposed to placing them under close surveillance in a community that knows them and lets them get away with little, is not way to steer anyone—especially youth—away from a life of crime.
As an elected representative in the area, I am appalled that we might be about to unravel a decade of good work tacking crime statistics and especially nuisance crime, for which the police seldom had the resources to take seriously. In Haddington, it doesn’t even make economic sense as the court building is in desperate need of renovation and the burden with fall on the local council and what the SPS claims to save will simply move to elsewhere on the public purse.
The last chance to reverse this idiocy is by the Justice Committee meeting on the 21st. I have therefore written to its chair, asking for a more sensible approach to be taken and for the Justice Minister not to be blind enough to throw a healthy baby out with his cost-saving bath-water.
“Christine Grahame MSP, Convener, Justice Committee.
“The Scottish Court Service put out a consultation about the provision of courts around the country. As an elected member of East Lothian Council with 14 years of service and chair of my Community and Police Partnership, I object to any decision to close Haddington Sheriff Court because it does not meet the requirements of local justice.
“Local justice, as provided at Haddington, cannot be replicated in Edinburgh any more than policing appropriate for Edinburgh can be applied here. Not only are crime and criminal profiles very different but our more flexible, hands-on approach to minor infractions, using community officers, community wardens and our ASBO team has, over the last decade, been developed with support from both sheriffs and JPs who understand our need for subtlety and understanding.
“When Leader of this council, I was at pains to ensure development of a strong and effective team to steer those committing misdemeanours—especially the youth element—into more reasonable behaviour. Knowing how much police time such activities takes, we funded additional local police teams, plus our own warden squad to work with them and argued for long appointments for our community constables.
“All this was underpinned by a sheriff court that, knowing what we were trying to achieve, acted sensitively in similar spirit. Our mode of working is yet, unknown in Edinburgh and their courts have no experience of the subtleties involved. Our sharply falling crime statistics in East Lothian will be jeopardised by the loss of the sheriff court element of our effective local justice and undermine much good work done.”
David Berry, Councillor, North Berwick Coastal