A proposal to close 11 sheriff courts threatens access to justice, the Law Society of Scotland has warned.
The Scottish Courts Service (SCS) has begun a three-month consultation, outlining its plan to shut sheriff courts in Dornoch, Duns, Kirkcudbright, Peebles, Rothesay, Alloa, Cupar, Dingwall, Arbroath, Haddington and Stonehaven. Business from these courts would be transferred to neighbouring districts.
Justice of the peace courts in Coatbridge, Cumbernauld, Annan, Irvine and Motherwell would also be shut under the plan, with business transferred to sheriff courts in appropriate districts. The consultation also includes a proposal to centralise High Court functions and sheriff and jury trials.
SCS said having fewer court buildings will allow investment to be targeted to ensure the "best possible facilities and level of service is available for all court users but more particularly for victims, witnesses and vulnerable people".
The Law Society said the changes could restrict access to justice, particularly in rural areas.
Austin Lafferty, society president in Scotland, said: "Local courts have an important role within their communities and it is absolutely essential that access to justice remains the core consideration throughout this consultation process. It is vital that as a result of trying to streamline costs in one area, new difficulties are not created elsewhere.
"Neither should we expect individuals to shoulder additional costs of attending courts that are costly and difficult to reach and nor do we want to see, for example, an accused person travelling on the same local bus as a witness on an extended journey."
Eric McQueen, executive director of SCS, said: "With greater levels of specialisation expected to result from the justice reforms, we anticipate the most serious types of business being heard in fewer locations. Many of our court buildings were built in Victorian times and are both expensive to maintain and difficult to adapt to modern needs.
"We accept that having fewer court buildings, as proposed, will impact on travel distances for some people and the consultation paper sets out the likely impact of the proposed changes. For most people, attending court is a rare experience and future court services will seek to reduce this requirement through greater use of technology and online services."
The plans were criticised by the Public and Commercial Services Union which represents court staff. Scottish secretary Lynn Henderson said: "There can be little doubt that the reasons behind these proposals are part and parcel of the swingeing cuts in public sector budgets which will disproportionately affect the poor and vulnerable of our society. PCS maintains that a properly resourced and funded justice system is a cornerstone of our democracy and that is what the people of Scotland need and deserve."