Are the public being fooled by soap operas into believing they don’t need to appear as witnesses when they are cited to give evidence in trials?
That was the question a clearly angry Sheriff Nikola Stewart raised on Wednesday against a background of witnesses failing to appear at Lanark Sheriff Court.
And when it looked as if one trial would not be going ahead because witnesses were missing, she issued warrants for their arrests and sent police officers straight to the homes of the women, who appeared in court in handcuffs later in the morning.
Melissa Bell, from Lesmahagow, had been due to give evidence against partner Gary Guilfoyle, but had phoned to say she would not attend.
When she was brought into the dock handcuffed to a security officer, Sheriff Stewart told her: “When you phone the police to complain about something within your home, it is not a game. They came to help you because you needed help.”
And she added that that was clear because Guilfoyle during the morning had changed his pleas.
“This is not some kind of drama that you get to direct. If you are cited as a witness, then you appear, or you are facing more serious consequences than your boyfriend.
“And you absolutely deserve to have been brought in handcuffs from Lesmahagow and brought from the cells here.”
A solicitor for the tearful 20-year-old said that she had had no knowledge of court procedure, and that the morning’s events had been a salutary lesson to her.
The other woman arrested at her home and appearing in handcuffs was Wendy Guilfoyle (38) Gary Guilfoyle’s stepmother.
“Is it Eastenders or something that gives people the bizarre notion that it is up to them whether they deign to come to court?” the sheriff asked in exasperation.
In both cases, she made no finding of contempt, but added that Mrs Guilfoyle was very very lucky that the case had been resolved.
During the morning five other witnesses appeared in the dock after failing to turn up for trials in recent weeks. Warrants had been issued for them, but all appeared by arrangement rather than from custody.
New dates had been fixed for the trials and in each case the sheriff delayed considering the question of contempt of court — which could see them jailed — until the new trial dates.
She told one woman: “You are lucky the Crown offered you an invitation to appear. You might have appeared from the cells, and that is where you go if you are found in contempt of court.”
And releasing a man on bail, she stated: “There seems to be some misconception out there that witnesses can choose whether they appear. They can not. If they fail to appear, they face most severe penalties.”