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‘Hands off’ warning for Angus as axe looms over local courts

Arbroath court closed in 2014 and ACCT took over the building in a community asset transfer in 2021.

Justice chiefs have been warned local communities “will not thole” further court closures in the wake of dire budget warnings.

The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS) revealed this week it faces a £30 million financial blackhole over the next four years.

Bosses will be forced to consider closing court buildings, slashing the number of sitting days by a quarter or axing around 180 jobs.

Major concerns

In a submission to the Scottish Parliament’s inquiry on the 2023-24 budget, chief executive Eric McQueen said the Scottish Government’s “flat cash” budget offer presents “major concerns”.

He added that closing three or four court buildings “has the potential to release one-off savings and income totalling up to £4 million.”

The removal of part-time sheriff provision, cuts to the tribunals service, scaling back on the maintenance of buildings, and slashing jobs in areas like human resources and training may also be necessary.

But a firm “hands off” message has been delivered over more cuts in Aberdeenshire and Angus less than a decade after a round of deeply unpopular closures.

North East MSP Liam Kerr highlighted to the fates of Stonehaven and Arbroath sheriff courts in 2014.

Liam Kerr MSP

Urging further investment to centres still caught in a case backlog from the Covid pandemic, he pointed to a £280,000 repairs backlog at Peterhead and £30,000 cell relocation at Forfar as part of a £7.3m repair bill hanging over from last year.

He said: “The court estate is crumbling under the SNP government, so much so that repairs across Scotland almost swallowed up the entire capital budget in 2022.

“Now, bosses are being asked to do more with even less.

“Our local justice can’t fall victim to savage budget cuts.

“That would harm any progress in clearing the justice backlog, let down victims of crime, and add even more miles to travel for witnesses, staff and accused.”

Reoffending and bail fears

The SCTS warned MSPs that following years of tight budgets it would be “unrealistic” to identify further savings that do no directly impact on the level of service or number of cases being processed.

The service said that could increase the chances of reoffending and bail breaches.

Angus councillor Derek Wann was part of the campaign against Arbroath’s closure before he was elected.

Councillor Derek Wann.

He said reading the SCTS warning made him “feel like it was Groundhog Day”.

“This is how Arbroath sheriff court started, and in the end we lost a perfectly working seat of justice in the centre of town,” Mr Wann said.

“Despite huge public outcry, it was all decided in Edinburgh.

“It felt like a fait accompli.

“Angus still has a sheriff court and it must be protected against the spectre of further centralisation by the SNP.”

‘Lasting impact’ on locals

West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine MP Andrew Bowie spoke of the “lasting impact” of Stonehaven’s closure on the local community.

“I remember vividly the work the late Alex Johnstone did with local lawyers, throwing the kitchen sink at keeping Stonehaven open,” Mr Bowie said.

Andrew Bowie MP.

“Ultimately their compelling case fell at the Scottish Parliament.

“But Stonehaven’s closure has undoubtedly had a lasting impact on the Mearns, making justice seem more remote than it should be.

“There was a strong and adverse public reaction against the closure of Stonehaven and Arbroath.

“They will not thole any more cuts here.”

Justice Secretary Keith Brown said the UK Government is to blame for the funding shortfall.

He said: “Our largely fixed budgets and limited fiscal powers means the UK Government needs to provide the Scottish Government with sufficient funding to support public services and the economy in these difficult times.”