Judge proposes new court in radical shake-up of Scottish justice system

Originally published in The Herald, 1/10/2009

Radical changes to the country’s civil justice system – including the introduction of specialist judges and a new sheriff appeal court – have been proposed in the biggest shake-up of its kind in modern times.

Lord Gill, the Lord Justice Clerk who led the two-year review commissioned by the former Scottish Executive, said the current system was failing and that in some cases the delays were "scandalous".

The report published yesterday, which spans almost 700 pages, recommends major modernisation including procedural business and hearings taking place via e-mail, and the use of telephone and video conferencing.

Lord Gill, the second most senior judge in Scotland, warned the reforms would only work if properly resourced.

He called for an end to part-time and temporary sheriffs and for a proper "hierarchy" of structures, with the introduction of new district judges to hear summary criminal cases and smaller civil claims.

Under the proposals, the Court of Session, which he said had "become a playpen for certain frivolous and irresponsible party litigants", would deal with only the most serious litigation and major appeals with wider ramifications.

The review also allows for the introduction of "McKenzie friends" – lay representatives currently used in England and Wales to assist unrepresented parties in court.

Lord Gill revealed plans to tackle the "prolonged and excessive" delays that are common in Scotland’s civil courts.

The review contains proposals for the early disclosure of documents and the greater use of witness statements instead of oral evidence.

The document also proposes that there should be an online register of cases where the judgment has taken more than three months to deliver. The judge or sheriff would be required to outline and regularly update the reasons for delays to such cases.

Lord Gill said: "We recognise that in many cases delay is caused by judges and sheriffs themselves."

Another "major proposal" relates to the establishment of a Civil Justice Council for Scotland. The body would be charged with overseeing the working of the system, as part of a continual review of the country’s civil justice system.

The Law Society of Scotland, Faculty of Advocates and politicians including Bill Aitken, the Tory justice spokesman, welcomed the "very interesting" report, which will be debated in Holyrood next Thursday.

Martyn Evans, Director of Consumer Focus Scotland, said: "This review sets out a bold range of challenging but pragmatic recommendations."

The Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), however, voiced its concern.

General Secretary Grahame Smith said: "These proposals amount to a major upheaval of the civil justice system. In aiming to fix a range of things within the system which are not broken, the review seems likely to involve additional and unnecessary costs, the brunt of which we can only assume will be borne by those seeking justice in the first place."