Talking Point: Courting change

Written by Alan Robertson on 24 June 2014

Tory MSP John Lamont used the word “bombshell” when, just over a year ago, Eric McQueen, chief executive of the Scottish Court Service, told members of the Justice Committee that new ‘justice centres’ were being considered. Against a backdrop of proposed court closures, which were going through committee at the time, the alarm – rightly or wrongly - was not limited to just Lamont inside Committee Room 1.

In effect, courts, police, social work and victim support would all be based under the one roof in a model that has been tried and tested at Livingston. It’s an idea which is, in principle, a welcome one given the stronger links between justice organisations likely to be brought about by co-location. It is the courts part that caused a degree of angst last May though, given the prospect that the ten sheriff courts earmarked for closure could be a sign of further things to come.

The first in a series of feasibility studies into the desirability of justice centres has found that in the Borders, at least, the development is, well, undesirable. Duns and Peebles are both set to close inside the next seven months with court business transferring to Jedburgh and Selkirk respectively.

The study in question was intended to explore whether this, in itself, was sufficient or if a single ‘one stop shop’ centre in the Scottish Borders represented a more promising route.

In terms of value for money, a working group with representation from SCS, Scottish Borders Council, Police Scotland and the Crown, among others, deemed that not to be the case. In terms of the model being integrated and tailored to the needs of the Scottish Borders, it was considered “unlikely”. It was “doubtful” whether a centralised centre and service locations would match the levels of contact and service that the existing model provides.

“Having a dedicated justice centre or court located in the multiple (even larger) population settlement is not viable or sustainable,” said the study. “Equally, having a single central site will not be enough to meet the varied needs of the Scottish Borders.

“At the end of the day it is a question of balance and fit – between the polarities as opposed to being at either end of them. Accordingly, the study conclusion is that the most feasible and suitable option is retain the existing facilities, exploit the application of technology and build a strong network across the community justice system.

“The conclusion is that the existing courts in Jedburgh and Selkirk will be maintained and exploited to the full. A single justice centre, as defined in the Shaping Scotland’s Court Services consultation document, would not be appropriate.”

So, what next? This is what the SCS had to say in the executive summary to their ‘Shaping Scotland’s Court Services’ document published last April, recommendations from which formed the basis for court closures backed by the Scottish Parliament. “We are in no doubt that the optimal future model in the longer term is for purpose built justice centres in key strategic population centres including, the Borders, Fife, Lanarkshire and the Highlands to complement the existing high quality courts that we already have in many of Scotland’s cities.”

That vision will not materialise in the Borders, though the SCS remain committed to trying it elsewhere. “The feasibility study shows that while it is right we test the concept of justice centres it is equally important that we tailor approaches that are right for local communities, and we will continue with this approach as we consider Justice Centres in other locations,” McQueen said yesterday.

McQueen told The Journal last October that once the Borders study is complete, “we’ll look at feasibility studies in the other areas”. Specifics on further feasibility studies are yet to be announced. No doubt they will be at some point.

Hardly a bombshell, but one expects they’ll be treated as such if the prospect of further court closures elsewhere comes back into view.

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