The Making Justice Work: Courts Reform (Scotland) Bill Consultation ran from February to May 2013. It contained proposals to restructure the way civil cases and summary criminal cases are dealt with by the courts in Scotland. The proposals suggest a legal framework for implementing the majority of recommendations of the Scottish Civil Courts Review. The proposals include a redistribution of business from the Court of Session to the sheriff courts, creating a new lower tier of judiciary in the sheriff court which would be called the ‘summary sheriffs’ with jurisdiction in certain civil cases and summary criminal cases. Other proposed measures include the creation of a new national sheriff appeal court and a new national specialist personal injury court.
JUSTICE Scotland considers it essential that a detailed account be taken of the impending changes to both the structure of the overall court system as set out in the Shaping Scotland’s Court Services document and of the impact of changes to the criminal justice system.
While JUSTICE Scotland supports cases being tried at the appropriate level, we are concerned about the capacity of the Sheriff Court to cope with the likely increase in volume of criminal and civil business that is likely to result not just from the Court Reform Bill proposals but also following the implementation of the court closures programme. By raising the privative limit to £150,000 a significant amount of business will move from the High Court to the Sheriff Court, including 90% of personal injury cases.
In particular our concerns are that:
- The closure of a number of courts will impact on court users having to travel further to attend court and lead to problems with complainer, witness and accused all travelling on the same bus or train to court; difficulties in child care arrangements; impact on court staff; use of video conferencing which is not always appropriate in criminal cases;
- Two specialist sheriffs may not be sufficient. We are in favour of specialisation of the judiciary and suggest that the Government reconsider its proposal that some summary sheriffs sit only in civil cases;
- A single national appeal court should be retained on the grounds of consistency and certainty;
- The court’s discretion to sanction a case as suitable for counsel should be retained;
- The introduction of a three month time limit for judicial review will create a significant limitation on access to justice;
- Parties should not be compelled to consider ADR in each case, nor should there be the possibility of consequences in costs and expenses should the option not be taken.
With the proposed introduction of the Specialist Personal Injury Court, it would seem sensible to allow that court to deal with cases with a value of less than £5,000. Complex cases, e.g. industrial diseases, or workplace accidents can have a relatively low value but involve detailed consideration of legal issues. Civil jury trials should be retained within the specialist personal injury court.