MSP sceptical over honorary sheriffs proposals

The end of the honorary sheriffs system will most likely be heralded soon following controversial plans to abolish the role played out in Scottish courts.

The final vote on the Courts Reform Bill is due to take place this week, with the majority government almost certain to wave the changes through.

MSP Tavish Scott at the referendum count. Photo: Dave Donaldson
MSP Tavish Scott.

Isles MSP Tavish Scott has remained sceptical over the move by the SNP-led authority, fearing it will hinder the delivery of justice in the isles.

Last week his Orkney counterpart, Liam McArthur, held talks with the Minister for Justice, Roseanna Cunningham.

Mr McArthur was told the abolition of honorary sheriffs would take 10 years to complete – and would only take place if the proposed alternatives can be shown to work.

Mr Scott said it remained unclear what alternatives there were to honorary sheriffs in the isles. He said the “local knowledge” they brought to the courts had already proved to be “crucial”.

“He [Mr McArthur] has been given assurances that we will keep honorary sheriffs until there is an appropriate alternative in place … It’s not obvious to me what the alternatives to honorary sheriffs are in Shetland.

“The local knowledge that they bring and their ability to work with police, social work and other key local agencies – particularly on child protection issues – is crucial.

“For those reasons I would need some convincing that any system of justice which relied on people in Dundee or Glasgow was going to be an improvement for Shetland.”

Concerns were highlighted in March when proposals emerged to do away with the role played by honorary sheriffs.

The Scottish government said the role should instead be assumed by the creation of new summary sheriffs, and increased use of technology, such as video conferencing and electronic warrants. But that added fuel to the fire of accusations that the Holyrood authority was centralising key services.

Calls were made in June by the Liberal Democrats to preserve the role. But those were defeated at a meeting of the Scottish government’s justice committee.

The proposals have remained unpopular in the isles, however, and Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill had to defend the move when he visited Shetland in the run-up to last month’s independence referendum.


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