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‘Consumer blueprint’ for future of civil justice in Scotland launched but how long must Scots consumers actually wait for a fairer deal on access to justice ?

17 Mar

Consumer Focus ScotlandConsumer Focus Scotland publish policy for Civil Justice reform. CIVIL JUSTICE REFORM gains yet another ‘boost’ as Consumer Focus Scotland publishes a new report providing their version of a ‘consumer blueprint’ for the future of the civil justice system in Scotland. “Making Civil Justice Work for Consumers” sets out various policy positions on civil justice and highlights the key areas of the system that are priorities for much needed reform, as we learned last year from Lord Gill’s Civil Courts Review

The principles underpinning Consumer Focus Scotland’s approach to civil justice are that the system needs to be user-friendly, affordable and accessible to ensure that when required users are able to enforce their rights and settle their disputes.

The report, which can be downloaded here : . Making Civil Justice Work for Consumers: The consumer perspective on making the civil justice along with a summary of the report here : Making Civil Justice Work for Consumers : A Summary, proposes a four-step approach to removing barriers to access to justice:

* A public legal education strategy
* Joined up and appropriate advice services
* An emphasis on informal means of resolving disputes
* More user-friendly formal dispute resolution processes

Head of Policy and Solicitor at Consumer Focus Scotland, Sarah O’Neill, said that the report’s approach is aimed at establishing a civil justice system that better meets the needs of consumers:

Sarah O’Neill : “The Gill Review has already outlined a vision for making Scotland’s civil courts fit for the twenty-first century. This report, informed by years of research and policy development, sets out a four-step approach to reforming the wider civil justice system to ensure that it better meets consumers’ needs and delivers access to justice.”

“Most of us will use the civil justice system at some point in our lives. For many their interaction with it will be difficult and unwelcome because of the stressful issues they are dealing with. Whether facing a divorce or a dispute over access or residence of children, debt recovery, a consumer dispute or a housing problem, the public’s experience of the civil justice system has too often been that it doesn’t properly support them to resolve their dispute in the most appropriate way, at the appropriate time.”

“The present system focuses too much on the needs of the professional users of the system, such as solicitors, advocates and judges, rather than those of the ultimate users, those who become involved in civil disputes. We believe that implementing the steps set out in this report would give Scotland the user-friendly, affordable and accessible civil justice system that consumers desperately need in the twenty-first century.”

Step One of Consumer Focus Scotland’s report, highlighting the need for a Public Legal Education Strategy for Scotland would seek to ‘educate’ consumers on their legal rights & entitlements in Civil law, allowing Scots to make informed choices about which legal services best meet their needs, enabling consumers to:

a) recognise they have a problem
b) recognise the problem has a potential legal remedy
c) identify a course of action to pursue that remedy, be it taking action themselves, or seeking help from an appropriate source

The report states : “Recent research commissioned by Consumer Focus Scotland and the Scottish Legal Aid Board pointed to an urgent need for better information for the public and wider access to support services in all courts. A consistent message emerging from this research was that few people knew what to expect and many were deeply concerned about understanding the language and procedures of the courts. Crucially, what no research can do, however, is indicate how many people are put off pursuing their case as a result of their preconceptions about what’s involved. We therefore believe a public legal education strategy is critical to improving access to justice for consumers in Scotland.”

Step Two of the report highlights the issue of “’Joined Up and Appropriate Advice Services’ where Consumer Focus believe “An important feature of a just and inclusive society is the ability of all of its members to enforce their rights, meet their responsibilities and resolve their disputes. Fundamental to this is the need for consumers to have access to high quality legal advice, at an affordable cost. Such advice should be provided on a client-led basis, and consumers should have access to the most appropriate services to deal with their problem, be that from a private, public or voluntary sector provider. We believe that this ‘complex mixed model’ of advice provision best serves consumers by providing a range of services to suit their particular personal and legal circumstances.”

slcc suicides1Scottish Legal Complaints Commission were praised in the report as a significant step forward. A surprise in the report is praise for the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, where the report comments (almost unbelievably) : “There have been a number of significant improvements in this area in recent years. The establishment of an independent Scottish Legal Complaints Commission has been a significant step forward, giving consumers greater confidence in the independence and impartiality of the complaints system.”

Compare that ill-deserved, bizarre, compliment, with the reality : Scottish Legal Complaints Commission reveals it passed most complaints about lawyers back to Law Society, has failed to act on Master Policy report

SLCC Expenses claims & salariesConsumers are more likely to lose out at the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, after revelations board members & senior staff ‘hate’ complaining clients. Actually not one individual who has contacted myself or the general media about the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission would back that statement up, and aside from any fiddled, seasonally adjusted, massaged or spun-out-statistics provided by the SLCC on their work to-date, the factual experiences of those dealing with the beleaguered quango support the notion the SLCC is more of a front for the Law Society than an organisation consumers should trust to regulate complaints against ‘crooked lawyers’.

Both consumers and solicitors in general believe the SLCC has been a giant step backwards, as all the evidence to-date seems to indicate beyond any reasonable doubt. The SLCC is mired in scandal, indecision and extrudes an anti-client venom bordering on the hatred of consumers, which would rival the world’s most deadly, if heavily intoxicated snake.

Step Three of the report, referring to an “Emphasis on Informal Means of Resolving Disputes”, puts forward ideas for alternative venues of dispute resolution outside that of the court, where consumers invariably end up in a tangled, complicated web of legal & court processes most view as being in place to defeat the individual’s access to justice.

The report in this regard states : “While most people agree that the courts are an important way for people to enforce their rights, on the whole, those involved in disputes are more interested in finding a resolution to their problem or obtaining compensation for harm or loss than necessarily enforcing their legal rights. We also know that people would generally prefer to avoid becoming involved in legal and court processes. Those who actually end up in a court or tribunal tend to express high levels of dissatisfaction with the process. The Paths to Justice Scotland research found that fewer than half of those whose dispute was resolved by a court or tribunal thought the decision was fair, as opposed to 80% of those who reached an agreement”

Lord GillLord Gill’s Civil Courts Review proposals welcomed by Consumer Focus Scotland. Finally, in the report’s ‘Step Four: More User-Friendly Formal Dispute Resolution Processes’, Consumer Focus Scotland states its welcome for Lord Gill’s Civil Courts Review criticisms & proposals : “We have welcomed the recognition by the review that the current court system, in providing a system that is ‘slow, inefficient and expensive’ is failing to deliver justice. While there have been a number of developments aimed at improving the court system, many of which have had benefits for consumers, the civil courts review’s analysis was that this piecemeal reform has left a system which is not fit for purpose.”

Class ActionsScots have already had to wait 27 years for Class Actions. Support for Class Action litigation gets a much needed mention in the report, which states : “Consumer Focus Scotland believes the initial focus for reforms must be to make those changes which will have the greatest impact for consumers. We hope that the recommendations within the civil courts review for such a procedure to be introduced will be taken forward in early course. This recommendation, together with other proposals for a proposed Consumer Advocate and for multi-party actions contained within the UK Government’s Financial Services Bill, has the potential to bring about real benefits for consumers. It will make a remedy a practical possibility for consumers, particularly where large numbers of people have each lost small amounts which it would not be economic to litigate about individually.”

McKenzie FriendsMcKenzie Friends, already kept out of Scotland for 40 years due to lawyers campaign against assistance for unrepresented party litigants in court. The use of McKenzie Friends in Scotland’s court system gets a mention : “There is also an urgent need to make the court system simpler and more accessible for individual court users. We believe there should be a comprehensive overhaul of all current court processes, to make them easier to use and simpler to understand. This not only includes simplifying the content and tone of court forms but also allowing the use of ‘McKenzie Friends’ to offer unrepresented litigants moral support and other assistance. These would be important steps to encourage more consumers to make use of the processes that exist to help them.”

Sections 25-29Rights of Audience in Scotland have been held back for over 17 years due to legal profession’s campaign against consumers increased access to justice. The report also goes onto recommend reviews to rights of audience for non-lawyers in Scottish Courts, stating : “We also think there is merit in reviewing rights of audience for lay representatives with a view to making the rules as uniform and cohesive as possible. We believe this would add clarity for consumers, the courts and the advice sector and may encourage greater use of lay representatives where a consumer cannot afford, or otherwise access, a solicitor.”

Law Society & faculty of advocatesLaw Society & Faculty of Advocates have always resisted reforms to increase consumers access to justice. All in all, not a bad report, but is this just another report after another report and another report ? Will the reforms being endlessly talked about actually happen this time ? For one thing, you can be sure the legal establishment and the legal profession, will fight many of these reforms all the way, tooth & nail, because many of these reforms amount to a loss of income to solicitors & law firms. As we all know, the legal profession do not take kindly to losing out on ripping off consumers & clients as they have been used to doing in Scotland for .. well .. decades … and as just about every ‘reform’ for giving consumers a better deal against Scotland’s notoriously poor legal services market have been effectively butchered by whichever administration was in power at the time … well .. don’t expect improvements anytime soon.

MacAskill tight lippedJustice Secretary Kenny MacAskill : THE greatest obstacle to reforming Scotland’s legal profession, regulation & consumer access to justice, even believes he owes his Government’s election success to the legal profession. You can also be sure the Scottish Government will drag its heals on these ‘consumer friendly’ reforms for as long as possible, due to there being far too many ‘lawyer lovers’ in the current administration, who even believe their elected office is due only to the work of the legal profession who .. rather than apparently how we, the electorate voted the last time around …

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