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Fees please, not Justice: Courts Reform (Scotland) Bill encounters more opposition from lawyers vested interests in hearings at Scottish Parliament

27 Mar

Reforming Scotland’s courts for easier public access is opposed by legal profession. SCOTLAND’S “Victorian” civil justice system will be turned into even more of a train wreck” than it currently is, by the Scottish Government’s proposed Courts Reform (Scotland) Bill, according to representatives of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers who faced the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee earlier this week. The proposals to slightly widen Scots access to justice which are currently under consideration by the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee were originally recommended by the current Lord President, Lord Brian Gill in his 2009 Scottish Civil Courts Review.

The latest opposition from the vested interests of the legal profession to the planned changes to Scotland’s inaccessible courts come after last week’s evidence from the Law Society of Scotland and the Faculty of Advocates who are both traditionally opposed to any reforms to the courts which allow the public greater and easier access to justice without having to go through expensive solicitors and QCs.

The overall tone of all opposition currently put before msps against the planned changes to the courts boils down to this – don’t allow people to access justice on the cheap, or do it themselves without a battalion of expensive lawyers and other so-called legal professionals.

The coverage from Tuesday’s session of the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee is available here :

Courts Reform (Scotland) Bill Justice Committee – Scottish Parliament: 25th March 2014

One of the more controversial aspects of the Courts Reform bill, that of transferring most of the Court of Session’s existing workload to the sheriff court by allowing sheriff courts to hear cases up to the value of £150,000, has drawn special ire from lawyers and advocates who claim the sheriff courts are currently overwhelmed with work and cannot cope with the increased workload.

However, the more obvious factor in many from the legal profession opposing the switch from Scotland’s Court of Session to the sheriff courts is that of fees.

It is well known solicitors, law firms and advocates, both junior & senior counsel would rather operate in the expensive exclusive and tightly controlled environment of the Court of Session in Edinburgh rather than scuttle around Scotland having to attend cases and possibly pick up a lot less in fees.

The Scottish Government have included in the bill plans for a specialist personal injury court which would take many of the cases being transferred from the Court of Session. However, msps heard more from lawyers who attacked this plan as being “seriously underfunded”.

In further evidence, Mr Ronnie Conway, who is the Scottish co-ordinator of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers also maintained that projected savings to the legal aid fund were “illusory” because 85% of legally aided cases were successful and costs were recovered from the defender.

Laughably, Alan Rogerson of the Forum of Scottish Claims Managers, told msps that insurers wanted cases to settle rather than ending up in litigation. Not really. Not if it the claim has anything to do with the Master Policy or is a negligence case involving a lengthening list of professions and public bodies.

The Law Society of Scotland and Faculty of Advocates have previously given evidence against the reforms, which are also opposed by trade unions for the effect they are said to be likely to have on damages claims brought by their members. Typically, the legal profession has come out against the court reforms, with both the Law Society of Scotland & Faculty of Advocates opposing the changes. However, Citizens Advice Scotland and the consumer body Which? are among those who support the plans, on the ground that they would simplify the process of litigation.

The Scottish Government issued a Press Release earlier this week showing that while the number of civil cases being heard at sheriff court level has been declining – down 10 per cent between 2011-12 and 2012-13, a 43 per cent drop since 2008-09, the number of civil cases being heard at the Court of Session has remained steady. Personal injury cases accounted for 79 per cent of cases raised in the General Department of Court of Session .

Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill said: “The latest civil law statistics underline why we need to reform Scotland’s courts and in particular ensure that the right cases are heard in the right courts, at the right time. As highlighted by Lord Gill, our civil justice courts have remained relatively unchanged for more than a generation and need to be made more effective and efficient.”

“At present too many cases, particularly lower value personal injury cases, are being raised in the Court of Session – clogging up the system and resulting in higher costs and delays for the parties involved. Through our court reforms we will ensure such cases can be heard at a new, national specialist personal injury court, where they can be dealt with more swiftly at a lower cost. This will have little impact on the sheriff courts themselves – representing only a three per cent transfer of civil cases – but will have a considerable impact on the Court of Session, enabling it to focus on more complex cases.”

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