‘Spectre’ of closures hangs over courts

The backlog of work includes a £30,000 cell relocation at Forfar Sheriff Court.The backlog of work includes a £30,000 cell relocation at Forfar Sheriff Court.
The backlog of work includes a £30,000 cell relocation at Forfar Sheriff Court.
The “spectre” of North East sheriff court closures is still in the air as justice chiefs face down a multi-million-pound hole in their budget, MSPs have heard.

Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service (SCTS) chiefs anticipate a £31m annual funding gap by 2026/27, which has been partially closed by £4.7m this year from additional Barnett formula from the UK Government.

There is a £7.3m backlog of court repairs across Scotland this year, including £280,000 of jobs at Peterhead and £30,000 cell relocation at Forfar.

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Holyrood's justice committee heard that closing three or four court buildings “has the potential to release one-off savings and income totalling up to £4 million.”

North East Conservative MSP Liam Kerr urged the SNP justice secretary to guarantee that there will be no repeat of the cost-cutting process which saw Stonehaven and Arbroath close between 2013 and 2015. The courts closed despite overwhelming public opposition, with campaigners warning of increased trial backlogs, empty buildings and witnesses stuck on long bus journeys alongside accused.

Mr Kerr said: “The last time SCTS faced such difficult financial circumstances it closed 10 Sheriff Courts including Arbroath and Stonehaven in my region. Now there's a £7.3 million maintenance backlog in our courts and the spectre of 2013 is never far from the minds of those in local justice. Will the cabinet secretary provide them with the certainty they need and say there will be no more court closures in the lifetime of this Parliament?”

Cabinet secretary Keith Brown said the Scottish Government “have no current plans” to close courts and linked the financial situation to budget allocation from the UK Government.

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He said: “What they spend on justice in England and Wales has a direct consequence from what you spend in Scotland. Despite that, in response to the point that was made by Mr Kerr, we have no current plans to initiate further court closures in Scotland.”

Mr Kerr said later: "The court estate is crumbling, 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.”