A sheriff has ordered GEOAmey bosses to appear before him and explain persistent, lengthy and disruptive delays that are preventing justice from “being applied uniformly” across Scotland.
Sheriff Robert More is considering whether the nation’s prison escort service has deliberately disobeyed or ignored court orders, meaning it could be found in contempt.
It follows repeated hold-ups delivering inmates to courtrooms at Perth and Forfar.
The final straw came last week, when accused shoplifter Leanne Dickson was more than four hours late for a trial at Forfar Sheriff Court.
The 33-year-old from Arbroath, who eventually pled guilty to a string of theft charges, was due at court for a 10am trial on Tuesday.
Prosecutors were forced to abandon the case after GEOAmey told them Dickson would not appear until at least 1pm.
The Anglo-American firm was then asked to bring the accused to court on Thursday at 9am for a second attempt at the trial.
However, GEOAmey told the court’s depute fiscal on Thursday morning Dickson would not be there before the afternoon.
It emerged Dickson was not picked up from HMP Edinburgh until 11am.
She did not arrived in Forfar until after 1.30pm – some four-and-a-half hours later than asked.
The court was told GEOAmey staff even went back to their Edinburgh base, after collecting Dickson, to switch to a smaller van.
Prosecutor fiscal depute Stuart Hamilton, who raised the issue of potential contempt, pointed out Dickson had been in custody for 40 days – the maximum allowed before a trial.
Staffing issues to blame
Siobhan O’Brien, the firm’s logistics centre general manager, apologised to the sheriff for the disruption and blamed ongoing “staffing levels”.
The sheriff, who claimed the issue was having an impact on the public purse, said he was “troubled” by what he had been told.
“It is clear to me that what happened this week in Forfar was not an isolated event,” he said.
“I have been told of this happening in Forfar in a manner that is almost routine.
“I am advised that there is a similar problem at Perth and I know from my own experience of outlying courts that this kind of event occurs not infrequently.”
He added: “In other words, in practical terms, justice is not being applied uniformly across the country.
“In this case, consideration must be given to the question of whether the relevant conduct represents a wilful affront to the authority of the court, being the definition of contempt.”
‘Wilfully ignored’ court order
Mr Hamilton, who was due to lead Dickson’s trial, said: “It was my view as prosecutor that GEOAmey had wilfully ignored the court’s order that the accused be brought here in good time.
“It is unacceptable on two occasions where the court, the Crown, the defence and civilian witnesses have done their duty to be here on time, GEOAmey have failed to bring the accused.”
He said that in Perth, custody cases have taken so long to come to court accused were simply taken back to the cells to be dealt with the next day.
Fellow fiscal depute Jill Drummond added: “It is a very regular occurrence for Forfar.
“I’ve had people go way up north before they are brought here.”
The sheriff has ordained GEOAmey to be represented at a contempt hearing on June 23.
The firm secured an eight-year contract worth around £240 million with the Scottish Government in 2019.
Its services are monitored by the Scottish Prison Services.