Fears have been raised over the future of a north-east court after it emerged all jury trials have been shifted to Aberdeen.
The Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service has confirmed plans to phase out jury trials at the court in Peterhead, with hearings relocated 30 miles away to Aberdeen.
It has previously announced a 10-year plan to transition jury trials from rural courts to other sittings across the country, and it has now emerged Peterhead has hosted its last.
The change means victims, witnesses and potential jurors will face a 60-mile round trip to see justice done.
Last night, opponents warned the decision would heap pressure on staff at Aberdeen Sheriff Court, which is already struggling to cope with the additional demand created by the closure of Stonehaven’s court in 2014.
The move also prompted calls to bring Stonehaven back into use to ease the pressure on Aberdeen, which is operating close to its capacity.
Solicitor-advocate George Mathers, whose firm regularly represents clients in Peterhead, warned the change meant solicitors will now have to battle even greater congestion in the courts.
“I presume this is happening because of funding,” he said.
“It is disappointing it has happened, because Sheriff Andrew Miller who was in Peterhead is an extremely able sheriff and the court was suited to carry out trials.
“Aberdeen Sheriff Court is already congested with cases that take far longer than they should to come to trial and this will only increase congestion.
“It is preferable to have trials conducted in the area where the crime is alleged to have taken place. By moving trials from Peterhead to Aberdeen we are increasing the burden required on witnesses required to come to trial.”
North East MSP Lewis Macdonald last night also condemned the decision which has brought into question the future of Peterhead’s court rooms.
“This downgrading of Peterhead Sheriff Court will cause real concern,” he said. “Local people will fear it is the first step towards closure, as happened to Stonehaven Sheriff Court only four years ago.
“The Scottish Courts Service at that time had to admit that Aberdeen Sheriff Court was already very busy, and that closure of Stonehaven would take the number of court sitting days at Aberdeen ‘close to overall capacity’.
“Diverting jury trials from Peterhead is bound to put further pressure on Aberdeen Sheriff Court. It will also mean more cost and more hassle for people from Buchan required to attend court for jury trials, whether as victims or witnesses, or in any other role, including members of the juries themselves.”
Last night, however, a spokesman for the SCTS said the change was “key” in running court business more efficiently.
Its ultimate aim is to have just 16 specialist centres for the running of jury trials in Scotland.
The spokesman said: “The changes are to be introduced over a 10-year period, as the body of new summary sheriffs becomes established, and are designed to improve the consistency and quality of service in an area, and thereby increase public confidence in the administration of justice.
“The move also offers opportunity to programme and manage strands of business more efficiently.”
Only in exceptional circumstances will the court in Peterhead be reenlisted to host a jury.
The SCTS has said the case would need to be of “particular local interest” or “where the interests of justice require the local court”.
“This decision was reached after consultation with the Sheriffs and the Crown,” it added.
A spokesman for the Crown has said the change will not affect its operation.
- The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service has asked us to clarify that Peterhead Sheriff Court will not be phased out. Sheriff-only trials, summary criminal matters and civil cases will continue at Peterhead.