SCOTTISH Labour’s shadow secretary for the islands Rhoda Grant has added her voice to the growing list of people expressing concern over the decision to move jury trials away from island courts.
The Highlands and Islands MSP said she had raised the issue with justice secretary Angela Constance in early September.
The Scottish Government said it continues to work with partners to address the current issues following an order in July which ruled that new jury business would have to be heard in mainland courts due to staffing challenges with prisoner escort service GeoAmey.
Last week, Lerwick sheriff Ian Cruickshank said it would be shameful if jury trials were to be lost from the islands in the long term.
Reacting to the sheriff’s comments, Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael said the current situation had resulted in islanders being treated as “second-rate” citizens.
GeoAmey is fully staffed at island courts in Lerwick, Kirkwall, Stornoway, Portree and Lochmaddy, but the issue arises from the difficulty of getting prisoners held in custody in mainland prisons to court hearings in the islands.
Grant said: “The inability of GeoAmey to fulfil its contract to these courts is preventing justice to be accessed and delivered locally, as well as placing further financial hardship on individuals.”
She said this is having a direct impact on those facing and attending trial, witnesses, victims and legal representatives.
Grant added that despite assurances from the justice secretary that all solutions would be looked at to return trials to island courts, she was “disappointed to see that this clearly hasn’t materialised”.
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“Justice must be delivered locally; centralisation of trials is not practical and not acceptable for island communities,” Grant said in reply to queries from Shetland News.
In a response to the Labour MSP’s letter, the justice secretary wrote at the end of September: “Local court staff are working with justice partners including GEOAmey to review the arrangements for sheriff and jury business to see what can be dealt with at local courts.
“The aim being to reduce the number of cases that have to be transferred to Inverness. Once these issues have been fully resolved, it is intended that the Sheriff and jury business will return to Kirkwall and Stornoway and other rural courts as originally planned.
“I fully recognise the importance of access to justice for all those involved in the justice system. I can assure you that the situation is being carefully monitored, and solutions are being explored to minimise ongoing disruption and secure improvements going forward.
“Any solutions put in place will take account of the need of victims, witnesses and the accused and the impact upon them.
“Finally, I would like to assure you that Scottish Government is taking this issue very seriously and as a matter of priority is engaging with all key partners to resolve it.”
Meanwhile, SNP Highlands and Islands MSP Emma Roddick said it was clear to her that the current performance of the GeoAmey contract was not working how it should, and was therefore causing disruption for courts, the Scottish Prison Service and other services.
“We are working with partners to address the current issues and a series of practical steps are being taken to reduce the pressure on justice services including cutting the number of people travelling between prison, court and police custody,” the minister for equalities, migration and refugees said.
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