Moving jury trials from island sheriff courts to the mainland restricts rural Scotland’s access to justice, justice secretary Angela Constance has been warned.
New jury trials which would have called at Stornoway, Lerwick, Portree and Lochmaddy Sheriff Courts will instead call at Inverness, Aberdeen or Peterhead due to “staff challenges” with the prisoner escort service operated by GeoAmey.
Highlands and Islands sheriff principal Derek Pyle issued an order of court last month which made the changes effective until further notice, but emphasised it should act as a “temporary measure”.
However, Orkney’s MSP Liam McArthur has written to Constance to demand steps are taken to reinstate the solemn trials as quickly as possible.
The Liberal Democrat MSP said the measure was “wholly unacceptable” as islanders who will be impacted as witnesses, victims and lawyers face additional travel to the mainland.
He said: “The suspension of jury trials in Kirkwall and other courts during the pandemic was understandable. However, this was supposed to be a temporary measure in response to extraordinary circumstances and that once restrictions were lifted jury trials would return to courts across Scotland.
“The fact that the failure of a private contractor to fulfil its contract has led again to the centralising of trials is wholly unacceptable. At the very least this will have the effect of restricting access to justice at a local level.
“As well as the impact on those facing trial, this move will affect witnesses, victims and lawyers representing their clients. All now face the prospect of extra cost in time and travel to attend court.
“I have written to the justice secretary highlighting these concerns and seeking urgent reassurance that steps will be taken to allow jury trials to be reinstated in Kirkwall.
“Depending on the response I receive, I will be raising this in the chamber when Parliament returns from recess at the start of next month.”
Under the sheriff principal’s order, existing jury trials in Lochmaddy and Portree will move to Inverness, while scheduled trials in Stornoway and Lerwick will continue as normal, as will all other court business.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Prison Service, which leads the management of the contract on behalf of justice partners, is closely monitoring performance against the contract and is working collaboratively with partners to reduce any disruption to court service.
“They are also supporting GEOAmey to improve their staff recruitment and retention to meet the current and future demand for service.”