New senior sheriff relishes case for reform

Sheriff Mhairi Stephen at Duns Sheriff Court being installed.
Sheriff Mhairi Stephen at Duns Sheriff Court being installed.

NEW Sheriff Principal Mhairi Stephen has praised the justice system in the Borders and vowed to ensure that – what she admitted were strained resources – are fairly allocated.

The new head sheriff was installed at ceremonies in Duns, Jedburgh and Selkirk last week and she admitted she faced “challenging times ahead” in her new role.

She told local dignitaries: “Resources are already strained, and must be allocated fairly.

“Now is the time to modernise and to embrace reform, and I look forward to the challenges ahead.”

She has taken up her appointment as Sheriff Principal of Lothian and Borders, succeeding Sheriff Principal Edward Bowen who has retired.

Sheriff clerk John O’Donnell read her formal commission from the Queen and Sheriff Kevin Drummond officially welcomed the new sheriff principal to what he described as “the most scenically beautiful part of her jurisdiction.”

He said the structure of the Scottish judiciary had seen substantial changes, beginning with the amalgamation of JP and sheriff courts, and the establishment of a judicial office for Scotland with responsibility for the entire operation of the Scottish courts service.

And he admitted: “Sheriff principals are likely to find their traditional functions of sitting over civil appeals overshadowed by administration.”

Sheriff principals are appointed following a nomination from the First Minister based on a report from the independent Judicial Appointments Board for Scotland. They must have been qualified as an advocate or solicitor for at least 10 years.

Along with the Inner House of the Court of Session, they hear appeals against sheriffs’ decisions in civil cases. Sheriff principals also handle criminal cases and conduct major fatal accident inquiries.

They have responsibility for ensuring the speedy and efficient disposal of business, and have some powers of appointment as well as a number of advisory, consultative and ceremonial functions.

Sheriff Principal Stephen was a partner in Edinburgh legal firm Allan McDougall and Co. before being appointed resident sheriff at Edinburgh in 1997.

Sheriff Drummond commented: “She carried out her shrieval functions with great distinction, becoming a member of the board of Scottish Civil Courts Review, and establishing and supervising the new personal injuries procedures since 2009. These skills will be required with full measure for the office she now undertakes.”

Local solicitors throughout the area welcomed the new Sheriff Principal.

At Jedburgh, Alison Marshall, dean of the faculty for Roxburghshire, told her: “Our faculty is a fairly small one, but we have a good working relationship with the Crown, court staff and sheriffs, which all contributes to the smooth running of our courts.”

Procurator fiscal Graham Fraser bade her a welcome on behalf of the Crown.

Sheriff Principal Stephen said she had fond memories of the Borders, recollecting her first visit to Jedburgh Sheriff Court to preside over a jury trial involving five accused.

The sheriff principal said she was proud to take on the challenge of administrating the justice system, adding: “The courts are here to serve the community and the sheriff court is at the heart of that community.

“The actions of an independent judiciary send an important message that the rule of the law is working.”

Sheriff Principal Stephen said the Borders courts had a collective reputation of being fair and just – thanks to presiding sheriffs Kevin Drummond and Donald Corke. She also praised the work of JPs who, she said, played a significant part in administering summary justice and acknowledged the importance of honorary sheriffs.

She went on: “Staff are also a vital element of a successful operation and I am impressed by their professionalism and dedication.”

The sheriff principal said the legal profession was crucial and essential for fairness, adding that the Scottish Borders was fortunate to have such a high standard of solicitors.

She also recognised the invaluable work of police officers, stating: “Effective policing goes a long way to preventing crime.”