Weekend Cell Crisis Fuels Call For Saturday Court Sittings

The Scottish Executive is examining the possibility of opening courts at weekends to cope with the rising tide of offenders arrested on Friday nights.

Kenny MacAskill, the Cabinet secretary for justice, has instructed civil servants to consult with sheriffs over the possibility of Saturday courts amid growing police concern at the amount of resources used to lock up hundreds of people over weekends.

Some prisoners are driven on 100-mile round trips to find an available cell, a situation Mr MacAskill has described as “absurd”.

The Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland is carrying out research into the numbers of people detained at weekends to determine the extent of the cell shortage.

Officers have told The Scotsman that pressure on police holding facilities means cells designed for one prisoner are housing up to five people.

Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee are said to be the worst-affected areas.

In Edinburgh, about 20,000 people were taken into custody in 2006 – an average of nearly 400 a week.

The city’s main custody facility, at St Leonard’s Police Station, has 42 cells but at weekends has to process up to 100 people, with about 40 held until Monday before appearing in court. Some prisoners have to be taken to Livingston, Dalkeith or Hawick to be kept for the weekend.

Some 229 people were detained at Glasgow’s Stewart Street police station in February, compared with 181 over the equivalent period in 2006, with the number arrested regularly exceeding the number of cells available at weekends.

Mr MacAskill last year said the answer was to open custody courts in the main cities on Saturday – but resistance from sheriffs and cost implications could put a brake on the plans.

A Scottish Executive spokesman last night said: “Decisions as to when courts should sit are currently made by the sheriff principal of each sheriffdom, who takes into consideration the needs of the court programme.

“Any move to extend court sitting days would need to be fully consulted upon.”

A spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland said: “ACPOS is evaluating the possibility of Saturday courts on the basis that this would reduce the time arrested people spend in police custody.”

Police say thousands of pounds are spent on feeding and providing medical treatment for prisoners at weekends – money which could be spent on front-line services if courts were open on Saturdays.

Chief Inspector Brian Plastow, of Lothian and Borders Police, said: “Saturday courts will be very beneficial. We’ve had them in the past and they operate successfully in parts of England and Wales.”

Ian Simpson, a retired sheriff, said: “I can see some advantages in having a Saturday court for the police and those unlucky enough to be arrested on Fridays. But opening the sheriff courts for an extra day each week would have cost and resource implications for the whole court service that might outweigh the benefits.”

• MANDATORY drug testing of suspected criminals will begin today in Scotland’s three largest cities.

New powers mean anyone arrested for drug or theft offences in Glasgow, Edinburgh or Aberdeen will be subject to screening.

The £1.6 million, two-year pilot scheme gives senior officers the power to refer anyone arrested who they suspect of using Class A drugs.

Prisoners will be taken to police stations including St Leonard’s in Edinburgh, London Road in Glasgow and Queen Street, Aberdeen for saliva samples.

The police and courts will use the results when making bail and sentencing decisions and referring drug addicts into treatment programmes.

The Cabinet secretary for justice, Kenny MacAskill, said: “This programme aims to help problem users get off drugs, into treatment and away from crime, but we know there are no quick fixes to this complex issue.

“Around three-quarters of those given a custodial sentence show signs of drug misuse and drug-related offending.

“We need to improve access to effective interventions for those suffering from addiction while at the same time being tough on drug dealers.”

The new powers were included in the Police, Public Order and Criminal Justice Act 2006.

Class A drugs include heroin, methadone, cocaine, ecstasy, LSD, amphetamines if prepared for injection, and magic mushrooms if prepared for use.