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Court / Islanders treated as ‘second rate’ citizens, Carmichael says as jury trial row intensifies

New jury trials can’t take place at Lerwick Sheriff Court due to staffing issues at prisoner escort provider GEOAmey.

MOVING jury trials away from the Scottish islands has been branded as yet another step in the long list of taking vital services from islanders and is in sharp contrast to lip service paid by ministers.

That is the view of isles MP Alistair Carmichael, who responded to concerns raised by local sheriff Ian Cruickshank earlier this week.

Speaking from the bench on Wednesday, the sheriff expressed his dissatisfaction with an order that prohibits new jury trials in the Scottish isles due to staffing issues at prisoner escort provider GEOAmey.

The order, first imposed in July, requires new jury trials which would have taken place at Stornoway, Lerwick, Kirkwall, Portree and Lochmaddy sheriff courts to call at Inverness, Aberdeen or Peterhead sheriff courts instead.

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A jury trial set for Lerwick later month had to be discharged on Wednesday because of the lack of suitable counsel for the accused. It is now scheduled to be called at Peterhead Sheriff Court in February.

The sheriff expressed his fear over the future of jury trials in the islands and said it would be “shameful” if they were lost.

He also questioned the fairness of accused people on bail having to travel to the mainland at their own expense, as well as witnesses.

Carmichael, who practised as a solicitor before becoming the MP for Orkney and Shetland in 2001, said islanders were being treated as “second rate” citizens.

“My own experience in legal practice is now distant but depressingly it would appear that if anything things have got worse in recent years,” he said.

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Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael. Photo: Shetland News

“Our courts are now being run for the convenience of everyone apart from the local people who depend on them.

“Ministers and managers pay lip service to putting victims and witnesses at the heart of our court system but then things like this come to light and we see that they are last in the queue when it comes consideration by the system.

“Centralisation of police has meant that we all get the service that the central belt needs.  Now it is clear that when it comes to the courts we are to be treated as second rate citizens.”

He continued saying that taking witnesses south to give evidence in serious cases would only add further stress to an already difficult task.

And he wondered whether police officers who are taken south to give evidence will be replaced during their absence.

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On Wednesday, the court heard of a separate case that could potentially lead to as many seven police officers needing to travel the mainland to give evidence should that matter result in a jury trial.

Carmichael added: “On top of this the unreliability of Shetland’s air services and the lack of capacity on the north boats mean that there will be a higher likelihood than ever of trials being postponed.

“The root cause of the problem here is that decisions are being made by people who are absolutely clueless about the realities of living in an island community. 

“The SNP boast about ‘island-proofing’ and the Greens pass motions about autonomy but at the same time they act in a way that takes control and provision of critical public services away from the isles.

“The old saying is that justice has to be seen to be done.  In this case it has to be seen to be believed.”

In September Scottish Courts said the order on island courts was “under constant review and is consulting with justice partners with a view to returning jury trials to island courts when practically possible”.

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