South Scotland MSP Colin Smyth has called on the Justice Secretary to reverse the decision to move sheriff and jury trials from Dumfries and Stranraer Sheriff Courts to Ayr.
The local MSP raised the matter with Cabinet Secretary for Justice Humza Yousaf in the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday, before the news that mainland Scotland is to move to level 4 restrictions from Boxing Day for three weeks.
Speaking in parliament, Colin Smyth said: “The reality is these plans will increase travel for some people.
“For example, in some cases solicitors will have to make a 200-mile round trip daily.
“To propose a solution that asks people to travel from a level 1 area, Dumfries and Galloway, into what was a level 4 area at the time of the announcement, Ayr, is the height of irresponsibility.
“I appeal to the cabinet secretary to intervene to find a more local solution, even at this late stage.
“At the very least, can he give a guarantee that that will not be the solution in the long term, and that all sheriff and jury work will return to Dumfries and Stranraer sheriff courts from Ayr?”
Humza Yousaf answered: “I thank Colin Smyth for his response and we are listening carefully to what he has to say. I have already raised the issue with the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service. To give him the short answer, yes, we will keep these decisions under review.
“The member will know that travel out of a level 3 or 4 area for the purposes of a jury trial is permitted under the regulations, but he is right that we would try to minimise that. I can give him an absolute assurance that jurors will be cited only from Ayr, so there should not be any jurors who are having to travel from Dumfries.
“With the agreement of the Crown, defence and the sheriff, and where it is agreed that it is appropriate, evidence can be heard remotely from Dumfries sheriff court. Notwithstanding all that, I hear Colin Smyth loud and clear and I will continue to engage with the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service on the issue.”
Speaking after the question session, Colin Smyth added: “These plans must be reassessed as a matter of urgency. Regardless of the imminent move to level 4 restrictions for the whole country, we should not be asking people to travel between low and high COVID prevalence areas. The courts service say that witnesses won’t need to travel and can be questioned via video link from Dumfries or Stranraer. It seems crazy to ask solicitors and the accused to travel to Ayr to then question people via video who are back in Dumfries and Galloway. I have spoken to local solicitors across the region and there is unanimous opposition to these plans. So I was pleased to hear the Justice Secretary acknowledge my question and I will continue to press him to reverse the decision.”
The local MSP has written again to the Justice Secretary and Courts Services urging a rethink.