There are fears sheriff courts on Skye and North Uist could close and their jury trials move to Inverness and Stornoway, undermining the concept of fairness and justice.
Portree solicitor Duncan Burd is in the process of fighting that prospect, which moved a step closer last month when Sheriff Principal Derek Pyle ordered courts in Portree, Lochmaddy, Stornoway, Lerwick and Kirkwall to transfer their jury trials to Inverness, Aberdeen and Peterhead.
The reason given was that Manchester-based contractor GeoAmey are unable to provide sufficient staff for prisoner escort services at so-called remote courts.
They won the Scottish court custody and escort service two years ago.
In his order, Sheriff Principal Pyle noted that on the day jury trials had been due to start in certain courts it was discovered that prisoner escorts were unavailable.
He added: “As you will appreciate, that is not just an issue for cases where the accused is in custody; even if bail has been granted it is impossible to conduct a jury trial without an escort. (The Lord Justice General and all the Sheriffs Principal agreed earlier this year that the dock escort could be reduced to one officer – just in order to assist in one way we could to avoid trials being adjourned.)”
“The statutory power I have to order the transfer of solemn business is intended to be exercised only in exceptional circumstances which could not reasonably have been foreseen.
“I have decided that the present circumstances fit that description….
“Such an order should be made only as a temporary measure.
“I and others have therefore been asking for some time when we can expect the present problems to end. We have had no satisfactory answer. I am therefore unable to give any indication of when matters will return to normal.
“I do however want to assure you that I firmly believe in – and have always believed in – the principle of local justice, particularly for serious criminal proceedings in your courts.
“That will not change. And indeed I can also give you the assurance that the Lord Justice General agrees.”
In response to the “temporary” change, Mr Burd, who is managing director of Anderson MacArthur Solicitors, told the Free Press that because the Scottish Government are “not looking at remedies” this suggests that courts in Lochmaddy and Portree will “disappear” and people will have to go to Stornoway, which will be maintained, and to Inverness.
He added: “I have got four trials out of Lochmaddy at the moment that could end up with the sheriff and jury.
“One of them involves four witnesses, two police and two civilians. The accused lives in South Uist. The four crown witnesses will have all their expenses paid, including their accommodation.
“They will be covered for Inverness. The accused will have to make his own way to Inverness and sort out his own accommodation.
“He is on Universal Credit: the accused in trials is invariably in receipt of benefits.
“I have another case with 18 Crown witnesses, the majority of whom are islanders, so Marks and Spencer in Inverness will do a roaring trade, and you and me – the taxpayer – will pay a fortune.
“I was speaking to a Shetland colleague about a trial in Peterhead. The accused moved to Aberdeen, but he still had to pay £17 return a day on the bus, and he was there for five days.
“He only gets £70 a week in benefit. He was found not guilty because he was innocent. There is no right of relief to claim your costs back if you are acquitted.
“This is another example of the centralisation of all public services.
“It may be deemed to be cost effective in some quarters but it will end up costing more money because of the need to transfer from remote areas to the mainland.
“Accommodation in Inverness at the moment is not cheap.
“Perish the thought if you are a witness from Barra, a minimum three-day excursion to Inverness.
“The fundamental tenet of jury trials is that you are tried by your peers, peers being from the community where the alleged offence took place.
“At the moment, Inverness juries could come from as far west as Kyle, but no further. There is no provision to take people from Skye to Inverness for a Skye trial, but Inverness jurors can come from as far east as Forres.
“Would you want someone who is charged with an offence in Uist tried by a band of east coasters?”
GeoAmey are “lifting two fingers up to the justice department” because they have to pay penalties if they don’t perform.
“It is cheaper to pay the penalties than to perform,” Mr Burd added.
The solicitor, who joined Anderson MacArthur in 1988, is in the process of responding to the Sheriff Principal, and will be contacting the area’s MSPs in due course.
Article by MICHAEL RUSSELL