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Reforming Scotland’s civil courts – Bill published

In a recent development that will be of interest to anyone contemplating taking a legal dispute to one of Scotland’s civil courts, the Scottish Government has published further details of new legislation that it says will bring about the biggest modernisation of Scotland’s courts in a generation.

Civil Courts Review

The reforms follow on from the Scottish Civil Courts Review, which was conducted by Lord Gill in 2007-2009. In his review, Lord Gill, now the Lord President, found that the operation of the Scottish courts was ‘slow, inefficient and expensive’, and he therefore recommended a number of changes.

Key provisions of the Bill

The Scottish Government has taken these recommendations into account when drafting the Courts Reform (Scotland) Bill. The newly published Bill therefore contains the following key provisions:

  • Increasing the threshold under which the sheriff court can exclusively deal with civil cases from £5,000 to £150,000, which the Government says will free up the Court of Session to deal with the most challenging civil disputes. It argues that this change will strengthen the role of the sheriff court, while reducing costs and delays for litigants.
  • Creation of a new national personal injury sheriff court, where such cases will be heard by specialist sheriffs.
  • Creation of a national Sheriff Appeal Court to deal with summary criminal appeals from sheriff and justice of the peace courts, and civil appeals from sheriff courts. The Government says that this will help avoid the need for some civil appeals to be heard in the Court of Session and some criminal appeals in the High Court, and will deliver more proportionate costs, while preserving the right to appeal to the higher courts.
  • Creation of a new judicial post – the summary sheriff – to resolve lower value civil cases such as debt cases more swiftly and efficiently, while also dealing with summary criminal cases.
  • Plans for specialist sheriffs and specialist summary sheriffs in areas of law such as family, housing, personal injury and commercial law, with the expertise to deal with these issues as swiftly as possible.
  • New procedures for judicial review cases in the Court of Session including a three month time limit, and new procedures for appeals within the Court of Session and some appeals to the UK Supreme Court to improve efficiency.

Some areas of controversy

The Bill has received a mixed reception across the legal and business communities, with the proposal to increase the threshold for sheriff court cases from £5,000 to £150,000 proving to be rather controversial.

Consumer body Which? has welcomed the move, saying that it will enable more consumers to seek redress for poor services or faulty goods.

“That will be good for consumers and good for the many businesses that play fair with their customers,” commented Which? Executive Director Richard Lloyd.

Criticism of some proposals

However, the Law Society of Scotland has been less welcoming. Although it supports some of the proposals in the Bill, it says it is disappointed with the large increase in the threshold to litigate in the Court of Session.

“The Scottish Government is right to raise the threshold; however, we would prefer to see the limit set at no more than £50,000,” explained Fiona Robb, Secretary to the Law Society of Scotland’s Civil Justice Committee.

She also warned that care would be needed to make sure that the Sheriff courts were “adequately resourced to manage this significant transfer of business”.

The Faculty of Advocates has been equally critical of the increased threshold proposal. In expressing his disappointment, James Wolffe, QC, Dean of the Faculty, pointed out that the threshold increase from £5,000 to £150,000 amounts to a 3,000% increase.

“If enacted, this would prevent ordinary people and businesses from bringing a case to Scotland’s national civil court, the Court of Session, unless the case is worth more than £150,000,” he said.

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