‘A step backwards for local justice’
Concerns have been raised over plans to abolish honorary sheriffs in Scottish courts.
The proposals by the Scottish government are contained in the Court Reform (Scotland) Bill.
It is feared the plans could have a deep impact on the isles, where honorary sheriffs are often called upon to preside over first appearances of people accused of criminal offences.
They also have the authority to sign documents – such as warrants – in the absence of a resident sheriff.
Isles MSP Tavish Scott has written to the justice secretary Kenny MacAskill to voice his concerns over the proposals.
The Scottish government has said that the role should be assumed by the creation of new summary sheriffs and increased use of technology.
There has been no information as to where the summary sheriffs would be based – but Mr Scott believes it is unlikely they would be in the islands.
“Honorary sheriffs are fundamental to the delivery of justice in Shetland, particularly now that the courts service has recently reduced the islands sheriff cover.
“There are many instances where honorary sheriffs must make decisions as a matter of urgency, such as in child protection cases and granting police warrants outwith traditional ‘office hours’.
“How would this be done if there were no honorary sheriffs and the sheriff were to be in Glasgow? The Scottish government have proposed the use of summary sheriffs to counter this, but where would they be based?
“If a sheriff is not in Shetland that will cause difficulties for local police, social work and other agencies who need access to warrants and other court procedures at all times of day and night.
“The Scottish government’s proposals are the latest step backwards for local justice and serve to illustrate a complete lack of understanding about what works in the islands.
“I appreciate that there may not be a great demand for honorary sheriffs in urban areas where a sheriff will almost always be available, however, in island areas such as Shetland, the requirements of local justice can differ greatly, and, as a result, the role of honorary sheriffs is one which is key to delivering effective and efficient local justice. It is unfortunate too, that the Scottish government did not ask honorary sheriffs for their views about the delivery of justice and instead proposed their abolition without thinking through the consequences.”
Honorary sheriffs in the isles include Lerwick solicitor Eric Peterson, SIC convener Malcolm Bell, former director of the council’s marine operations, Captain George Sutherland, retired policeman Arnold Duncan, retired Sullom Voe Terminal operations manager Roger McDonald, former children’s panel reporter Wendy Scott.