None of the arguments put forward by the Scottish Courts Service in favour of closing Rothesay Sheriff Court stand up to scrutiny, according to opponents of the plans.
A delegation from Bute travelled to Edinburgh on Thursday to put the community’s concern at the impact of closure direcly to Kenny MacAskill, the cabinet secretary for justice.
The full text of the delegation’s submission to Mr MacAskill is as follows.
1. Aim of Scottish Court Services’ review to deal with their budget and cut costs
If courts are closed, valuable capital assets can be sold plus major reductions made in annual costs through ending expensive property maintenance and insurance and also through job losses. In Rothesay Sheriff Court’s case uniquely, the court building has already been sold. It shares Argyll & Bute Council’s offices. There are no dedicated staff at Rothesay Sheriff Court.
It is a very cost-effective way of operating a court with the Council staff assisting with court enquiries. It is a true public partnership. It was a sensible and creative solution which has overcome the expense of operating the existing court building and its work.
Scottish Court Services themselves have stated that their saving if Rothesay Sheriff Court were to close is only £6,000 per annum. This saving, however, is small in comparison to the increase in costs which will occur for Scottish Legal Aid Board, the Crown, Scottish Police Force and Argyll & Bute Council if the present court closes. Substantial reduction of Scottish Legal Aid Board’s budget and the Police budget are also primary aims of the present Government.
2. Increased costs to the public purse if Rothesay Sheriff Court is closed
(i) Scottish Legal Aid Board
They will need to pay the defence witnesses’ travel costs for ferry and bus are approximately £11.90 and if as a result of bad weather or mechanical breakdown or any other reason the ferry does not sail, then also their overnight accommodation. NB. The Wemyss Bay/Rothesay ferry has had more disruptions in 2013 than in previous years.
(ii) Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service
The Crown will require to pay all travel expenses and all overnight accommodation costs of the Crown witnesses (many need to attend Greenock Sheriff Court several times). How are they going to ensure protection of witnesses during their journeys and how will they prevent breach of bail conditions? What will this cost?
Additional Police Officers will be required to allow Police Officers cited to attend court for Trial to travel to Greenock by car (ferry fare £40 per vehicle) and be at Greenock Sheriff Court available to give evidence. At present the Officers are working and on standby and can be at court within minutes of being notified by the court that the Trial is ready to begin.
There are often several Trials set down for the same day and, therefore, multiple Police Officers may be cited and required to attend Greenock Sheriff Court particularly where an incident occurred at a change of shift for police officers.
The case may not proceed on first day and this process can be repeated several times. Meantime additional Police will need to be employed for the Police Force for the island. This may require bringing in extra Police Officers from off the island.
It will take a minimum of half a day for police officers to attend Greenock Sheriff Court and often the whole day or more when they are unable to return to the island.
The majority of criminal cases are against accuseds who receive only State benefit, and the majority of them have drug/drink problems and live on the financial borderline. Many will not have the travel fare to enable them to attend Greenock Sheriff Court.
The same is true of many of the witnesses. When they fail to attend at Greenock Sheriff Court, warrants will be issused for their arrest and the island Police Officers will then need to look for them, arrest them, detain them in their cells until G4S makes additional journeys to the island to uplift them. The result therefore will be more increase to public expenditure.
Some accuseds after attendance at Greenock Sheriff Court will call at Greenock Police Station for financial help because they have no money to get home.
Travel from the island to Greenock Sheriff Court is by Rothesay/Wemyss Bay ferry and then by bus. This is not a journey which can be fairly described as being only nine miles.
(iv) Argyll and Bute Council
They will have additional costs for travel and loss of staff time. Their Social Work Department are likely to have additional work arising from problems with accused, witnesses or family of accused particularly if the accused is a vulnerable adult or child travelling off the island which will at times involve overnight accommodation.
(i) Breach of bail conditions
It is normal when an accused is arrested that the standard conditions of bail will include a prohibition against the accused approaching or being in the vicinity of the complainer.
They, however, will both need to travel to court using the same ferry. This has an open plan public area and passengers are required to be in the public area. The accused, therefore, will be in breach of bail, which is itself a criminal offence.
The open plan public area is difficult to monitor and would require several people indoors and out to supervise. Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd will not provide any additional members of staff to help supervise the journey. The prominent presence of police officers on the ferry would be damaging to the island’s tourism.
(ii) Intimidation of witnesses
Both the Police and court systems regard preventing intimidation of witnesses as being important. Yet if the court closure takes place, Crown and Prosecution witnesses and the accused will be travelling and often returning together. These witnesses include wives whose husbands have been arrested for assaulting them and other vulnerable people who will be anxious about travelling with the accused and the accused’s witnesses. This may affect the evidence which they give and will also reduce the number of witnesses who are willing to come forward to the Police and assist them. The same witnesses will be open to retribution for their evidence on their return journey. This will adversely affect justice on the island and the safety of all those who live there.
(iii) Justice being seen to be done
It is a deterrent to crime to know that court cases will call in a local court and will be reported by the local newspaper. This deterrent effect will be lost. The Buteman is not going to be able to cover Greenock Sheriff Court. Furthermore it will be harder for members of the public to attend court to observe what takes place there. Justice must be seen to be done – is a cornerstone of democracy.
(iv) Accommodation not being suitable
The accommodation [at Rothesay] is adequate and is equal to and in some cases better than some existing courts which are to be retained including at Lochgilphead, Portree and Banff. Argyll and Bute Council’s building has already been adapted for disabled use and is suitable for wheelchair access including a separate entrance which can also be used by vulnerable witnesses and a specially adapted toilet.
There is a police officer present and the police station, if more help is needed, is only two minutes away from the court. This police station has adequate cells which as with Lochgilphead Sheriff Court can be used. There therefore is no requirement for custodies to remain in a vehicle at the court. The court room itself is pleasant and the court furniture is modern and attractive and satisfactory. There is broadband available and therefore there is no difficulty with computer technology.
There is a separate private room in a secure section of the building which can be accessed separately by vulnerable witnesses. To enable trials to take place with vulnerable witnesses minimal equipment is required for example a screen. CCTV equipment could be installed without great difficulty or expense. Indeed Argyll & Bute Council and the island community would doubtless contribute towards the cost so that the court could be retained and the trials with vulnerable witnesses restored to Rothesay Sheriff Court. There is a witness service provided at the court which operates satisfactorily.
4. Video evidence
The purpose of a proof or trial is to establish the truth which involves cross examination. This cannot satisfactorily be done by video evidence. The whole demeanour and body language of the person needs to be seen by the Sheriff, by the Fiscal and the defence solicitor. Witnesses are also less likely to lie about someone when that person is physically before them. Much easier to tell lies on videos. Videos for trials or proofs therefore will result in more wrongful convictions.
5. Small number of court users
The criminal cases have reduced because of the introduction of fixed penalty notices. The numbers quoted however are misleading. There are presently on average one or two trials per court day. Furthermore it is not just the accused who has to attend court but also the witnesses for Crown and the Defence so the numbers of those affected will be significantly larger. Furthermore while trials for vulnerable witnesses have been moved to Greenock Sheriff Court many of these could readily be restored to Rothesay Sheriff Court.
6. Social impact on the island
This is not a matter which only affects the small number of people who attend court nor indeed their witnesses. The whole community will be affected when witnesses are reluctant to come forward because of their concerns about travelling to court to give evidence and returning from court after having done so.
There is a huge support on the island to retain the court. Radio Bute broadcast an interview with Elaine Campbell of Wm. Skelton & Co on 17th May 2013 about the proposed court closure. No one would come forward to speak on behalf of the closure. Repeated requests were broadcast to the public asking any who supported the closure to contact the programme. No one did.
Elaine Campbell spoke in support of retaining the court. She said that a major benefit of a Scottish Parliament is one which understands the needs of the community and is not remote and also one where a sensible view is taken about reducing public expenditure (not one department cutting costs at the expense of others as parodied in the Yes Minister comedy series). We expect instead from the Scottish Parliament an adult and reasonable response.