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Scottish Courts remain a “Victorian”, ‘obstructive’ venue for many court users & party litigants despite small rise in ‘satisfaction survey’ results

18 Jan

A two percent rise in court user satisfaction masks deep concerns over poor state of Scotland’s Courts, run by body chaired by Lord President Lord Hamilton. SCOTLAND’S COURTS and the Scots justice system have been called everything from “Victorian”, “Institutionally racist”, “Institutionally sectarian”, “Institutionally corrupt”, & “Institutionally prejudiced” to name but a few of the accusations coming from all sectors of society, from court users, consumer groups and even from the most senior members of the judiciary itself. Put simply, when the Lord Justice Clerk, Lord Gill, calls the Scottish civil justice system “Victorian” and “unfit for purpose”, there is clearly something fundamentally wrong with our courts and how they handle access to justice, a seemingly ever dwindling right of Scots.

Curiously however, this is not the picture painted in the now nearly annual survey of court users carried out by the Scottish Court Service (SCS), in which their latest 2011 study released today claims a high level of “satisfaction” among court users, resting on the back of a small two per cent rise in “satisfaction” with some aspects of the Scottish Court Service. The SCS is the ‘independent’ body which runs Scotland’s courts, established by the Judiciary and Courts (Scotland) Act 2008, governed by a Corporate Board and chaired by the Lord President, the most senior judge in Scotland.

The survey, carried out by MVA Consultancy on behalf of the Scottish Court Service shows that 83% of respondents were satisfied overall, the highest ever recorded level, and up from 81% in 2009. Levels were similar for professional and non-professional users, with 85% of professional respondents, and 82% of non-professionals, stating that they were either ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ satisfied overall. The full survey report can be viewed online HERE with a summary HERE or downloaded from the Scottish Court website HERE

Among other findings, almost a third (31%) of respondents stated that they had travelled to court on the day of the survey as a car driver, with a further 15% stating that they were a car passenger. Over three quarters of respondents (78%) had travelled for up to 30 minutes to attend court. The majority of respondents had spoken with court staff on the day that they were surveyed, and most stated that they had found court staff to be either ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ helpful (95%) and either ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ polite (96%).

Less than half (46%) of all respondents stated that court staff had kept them informed about what was happening during the time they were in the court building. However, the majority of respondents (96%) who were given update information said that this information was either ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ helpful. Just over half of all respondents (55%) said that they had had to wait to take part in court proceedings. Waiting times varied considerably by area.

Over half of the respondents said that they were either ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ satisfied (52%) with their wait to take part in court proceedings. A further 19% said they were either ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ dissatisfied. There was a high level of satisfaction with regard to perceived safety and security, ranging from 80% for the cells to 96% for the jury room.

The main factors that appear to be driving users’ overall experience are satisfaction with court staffs’ attempts to keep respondents informed about how much longer they were likely to have to wait and satisfaction with helpfulness of the information provided by the court staff. The results from the survey compare favourably with previous years, with definite improvements in overall satisfaction over time in Lothian and Borders and the High Court and Court of Session.

Since the last survey in 2009, those questioned were more satisfied with the quality of refreshments available and the comfort and cleanliness of both court rooms and waiting areas. A high 96% found Scottish Court Service (SCS) staff polite, while 95% found SCS staff helpful. For the first time security was covered showing that most users felt safe inside Scottish court buildings, ranging from 80% of those who had been in the cells to 96% of jury room users.

Scottish Court Service Chief Executive Eleanor Emberson welcomed the results, saying, ”Achieving an 83% level of satisfaction among users is a credit to all our hard working and dedicated staff. The organisation is fully committed to a Customer Service Excellence programme as a way to develop our services to meets the needs of court users. We will use the constructive comments provided in the survey to continue this improvement.“

The Scottish Court Service has conducted satisfaction surveys with public and professional court users since 2005 although finding anyone who has participated in them has proved to be more difficult than the needle in the haystack scenario. The Scottish Court Service definition of “Court users” include all who enter or transact business within the court building and this includes for example solicitors, advocates, staff, social workers, police, jurors, witnesses, accused and members of the public including those involved in or interested in civil and criminal cases. The survey was conducted across all jurisdictions (Court of Session, High Court, Sheriff Courts and Justice of the Peace Courts).

However, satisfaction levels from growing numbers of party litigants who cannot afford or cannot obtain legal representation for a variety of reasons, do not appear to fit in with the SCS survey findings which do not give one single mention of party litigants or those who appear to be involved in some of the most complicated sectors of litigation such as negligence cases against the professions & public services. There is also no mention of McKenzie Friends, otherwise known as Lay Assistants in Scottish Courts.

In one case of a party litigant currently under investigation by Diary of Injustice, a case liable to show a distinct lack of satisfaction with the Court Service, audio recordings of conversations between court staff & the party litigant appear to show the party litigant being told not to turn up at court hearings involving a highly suspicious ‘fees recovery’ action pursued by a law firm against a former client who the law firm dropped at the last minute during a damages claim against his former employer. Yet while court staff told the now seriously ill party litigant not to show up at court, the law firm at the centre of the wrangle somehow managed to persuade a Sheriff Principal to grant their demands without any regard to a fair hearing for their former client who is now so ill he is excused by doctors from the court hearings.

Further enquiries into seven other long running cases involving party litigants in Scotland’s Court of Session & Sheriff Courts have revealed not one of the party litigants who have been involved in long and difficult legal actions in the courts were consulted by or ever encountered any survey teams acting for the Scottish Court Service.

One solicitor speaking to Diary of Injustice this afternoon said “..the survey was unlikely to restore any confidence in the Scottish courts system” which has, even in the eyes of at least some members of the judiciary, been long overdue for a complete overhaul to put the public first, instead of the professions & vested interests.

Admittedly, there are steady signs of improvement in the SCS in some quarters, where, slowly but surely, parts of the courts system is beginning to open up to reforms, some of which appear to be brought about by increased media & public scrutiny of a domain still regarded by many in the legal profession as its closed shop business window. It is a fact Diary of Injustice has over the years, seen a marked increase in the willingness of the Scottish Court Service to engage the media and public in matters where previously a wall of silence was usually practised.

However, speaking as a journalist who has covered the legal system for many years now, I think we all know Scots satisfaction with the courts system overall, has a long way to go before justice in Scotland can be deemed to be reliable, trustworthy, modern or even honest and whoever is the next Lord President must be a force for change, instead of more stagnation in Scots access to justice.

SCOTS JUDGE DISATTISFIED WITH VICTORIAN JUSTICE & COURTS SYSTEM

Lord Gill Lord Justice ClerkThe Lord Justice Clerk, Lord Gill, author of the Civil Courts Review. The Lord Justice Clerk, Lord Gill, in his speech to the Law Society of Scotland’s 60 year anniversary conference in 2009, reproduced in full here said : “The civil justice system in Scotland is a Victorian model that had survived by means of periodic piecemeal reforms. But in substance its structure and procedures are those of a century and a half ago. It is failing the litigant and it is failing society. It is essential that we should have a system that has disputes resolved at a judicial level that is appropriate to their degree of importance and that disputes should be dealt with expeditiously and efficiently and without unnecessary or unreasonable cost. That means that the judicial structure should be based on a proper hierarchy of courts and that the procedures should be appropriate to the nature and the importance of the case, in terms of time and cost. Scottish civil justice fails on all of these counts. Its delays are notorious. It costs deter litigants whose claims may be well-founded. Its procedures cause frustration and obstruct rather than facilitate the achievement of justice.”

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