Local solicitors oppose court plan

THERE is a chance that Forfar Sheriff Court will close its doors as the Scottish Court Service (SCS) makes moves to restructure.

The possibility has been met with widespread condemnation throughout the legal field in Angus and it is hoped that the closure will not go ahead.

There are fears that the closure will have a negative impact, not only on local firms, but the users of the court. Many fear that the closure would ultimately result in a lack of access to justice in the area.

Hamish Watt, of Watt’s Solicitors, Montrose, has grave concerns over the implications of such a closure.

Mr Watt, a council member of the Law Society of Scotland and of the Faculty of Procurators and Solicitors of Angus, said: “The Scottish Court Service has proposed wholesale changes to the court structure in Scotland and our concern in Angus is that they may close Forfar Sheriff Court.

“This means that Arbroath will get hearings at a summary level but Arbroath may not be able to deal with Sheriff and Justice trials and possibly family law so they will all be taken to Dundee.

“For those who are Angus based this is unacceptable.

“My view is that this is a cost cutting measure by the Scottish Government where the cost will be bourne by solicitors, parties to cases at court and the general public.”

He continued: “Criminal cases will be taken to Dundee Sheriff Court and in my view this is inappropriate. It will create problems with bus travel and even worse it could cause the situation of witnesses sharing public transport with the accused in their own case. This would undoubtedly cause conflict and distress and is an anathema to the interests of justice.”

Mr Watt has also expressed concerns that the closure of the court will mean the accused in criminal cases may not make the effort to turn up to court at all if it is moved to a neighbouring town or city. He said: “This would inevitably cause delay’s and be an inconvenience to the witness, leave Sheriff’s frustrated and will cost more in the long run.

“On the civil side of court business, on the basis of criminals and children getting priority, there is a possibility that civil court will be delayed to such an extent that the public get no satisfaction in being involved in the civil court procedure.”

He added: “I realise that in 2012 we are passing through a recession and changes are inevitable but the policy as proposed has not been comprehensively thought out.

“The government must listen to the voice of the public.”

In May and June of this year, the SCS held six events entitled “Shaping Scotland’s Court Structure for the Future’.

These events brought together representatives of the judiciary, court staff, police, Scottish Government, the Scottish Legal Aid Board, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service and the Scottish Prison Service to discuss the proposed changes.

In attendance at one of these events was Anne McKeown, secretary of the Faculty of Procurators and Solicitors of Angus, who shares Mr Watt’s concerns about the possible closure of Forfar Sheriff Court. She also raised concerns over how it could impact local solicitors and court employees: “It would put a lot of pressure on the smaller firms with a heavy court presence. They are only here in the town because of the court and the business that it generates.

“If the court was not here there would be a question mark over how viable their businesses are.

“This would also impact on the freedom of choice for the public in regards to what is on offer in their town.”

She added: “It would also have an effect on the local economy as the court staff and users also use the shops and services available in the town.”

However, she added that the reaction to the proposal at the event was encouraging: “There was wholesale opposition across all departments which is quite reassuring.”

There is still hope for the court, however, as no concrete decision has yet been made. The SCS intends to begin a three month public consultation on final proposals in the autumn. It is only after these consultations that a final decision will be made.

“Eric McQueen, SCS executive director field services, said: “The Scottish Court Service has made a considerable effort to involve a range of stakeholders, justice organisations and professional users of court service to help us understand the issues and concerns and to inform us of opportunities and ideas before we draw up proposals for the board to consider.

“If these proposals are acceptable to the board then a three month public consultation will begin in the autumn.”

Forfar solicitor William Boyle is heading a petition campaign to save the Forfar Sheriff Court. If you would like to add your name to the petition visit Mr Boyle’s office at 36 West High Street or e-mail petition@wgboyle.co.uk