Case closed for Alloa?
A PLAN to close Alloa Sheriff Court could hit the most vulnerable and prevent access to justice, say critics.
The Scottish Court Service (SCS) is currently consulting on proposals to shut the Alloa court and transfer business to Falkirk and Stirling.
It is part of a nationwide restructuring by the service due to reduced budgets, law reforms and a modernisation of the system.
The move would annually save the service £112,000 but would rely on £460,000 of works to upgrade Falkirk Sheriff Court plus a one-off "restructuring" cost of £64,000.
Critics of the plan say it will hit the most vulnerable in Clackmannanshire due to increased travel time and costs.
Those using public transport to court in Stirling could see their journey times almost double - an extra 30 minutes for some travelling from the Hillfoots.
Travel costs would also have an impact on Alloa residents for the first time - either £8.30 (return) by bus or £4.10 by train on peak times to the city.
In addition, just three years ago, Alloa Sheriff Court, once labelled the busiest court in the country, had more than £1.5 million of work done to add a second court room to the building.
Jim Savage, a former Dean of the Society of Solicitors of Clackmannanshire, said, "We are exceedingly disappointed that they would consider closing Alloa Sheriff Court which in any view is an exceedingly busy court.
"The court was recently refurbished and that refurbishment was successful in reducing the significant backlog which had built up due to the number of people required to use the court.
"It will have a major affect on access to justice, not only for people that have to appear in criminal court, but especially for those using the court for civil matters, particularly involving children as part of the child referral system.
"These are the most vulnerable people in society who are dependent on benefits. To force them to travel to Falkirk and Stirling will represent a significant burden both financially and in terms of time."
He added that while the service may save money on maintenance, other areas in the justice system would be affected.
Mr Savage said, "It is difficult to see how the closure of the court can result in any significant cost saving.
"There will be additional costs to the crown and procurator fiscal's office, the police, witnesses expenses and the legal aid board in paying the cost of travel for those attending court - coupled with the additional police time which will be incurred as a result of officers required to be in Stirling and Falkirk for court business."
In 2011/12 Alloa Sheriff Court, which also hosts district court and has nine SCS staff, sat for 312 days and dealt with 1115 criminal cases and 603 civil cases.
In earmarking the court for closure, SCS highlights its proximity (eight miles) to the next nearest court (Stirling) and "good transport links".
The proposal would result in summary and civil cases transferred to Stirling and sheriff and juries taking place in Falkirk.
Consultation on the move will last three months.
Politicians of all parties have hit out at the idea - which was first revealed by the Advertiser in December last year.
Labour MSP, Dr Richard Simpson said, "It is important that the council, lawyers and the public get behind a campaign to stop it. Justice should be seen to be done.
"Clackmannanshire does not deserve to be the only mainland authority without a Sheriff Court."
Mr Brown, MSP for Clackmannanshire and Dunblane, admitted that he has some concerns and had spoken to solicitors to gauge their opinion.
He said, "While I understand the requirement for reforms and the need to reduce public expenditure, there is also a need to ensure that local people can continue to access an appropriate service when and if required."
This article appeared in Alloa & Hillfoots Advertiser 26 Sep 12
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