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Agenda: Overdue changes to court system will help consumers with claims

The modernisation of the Scottish courts system through the Courts Reform Bill is long overdue.

The new law will be the cornerstone of access to justice for consumers, therefore it's vital this golden opportunity to overhaul the courts is seized and made to work for everyone.

So I don't agree with members of the legal profession warning this sort of reform will favour the rich. The Bill currently going through Parliament will improve access to justice for ordinary people seeking redress on a range of consumer issues. It will modernise the courts and make them fit for purpose.

As the largest consumer organisation in Scotland, Which? is supporting these proposals as we think it will open up channels of justice to those who couldn't have contemplated taking legal action before.

At the moment many Scots simply cannot afford to go to court if they have been let down by a builder, or lost money on a poor holiday or dodgy car because of the fear of legal costs.

Which? wants to see the cost of accessing justice to be proportionate and more affordable, so that it is a real option for everyone.

And it's not just consumers who would benefit, businesses will too. Companies providing poor services are sometimes not held to account and decent businesses are not able to compete fairly, so all sections of the community are damaged.

Which? supports the Bill's proposal to move cases up to the value of £150,000 out of the more expensive Court of Session into the Sheriff Court.

At the moment most civil cases are already litigated in the Sheriff Court, where people can choose to employ either solicitors or counsel.

However, because of current limits, some people raise their case in the Court of Session at a needlessly high level where they are forced to employ counsel.

They, therefore, face much higher costs themselves and, of course, face the risk of having to shell out higher costs from paying for the other party's legal bill if they lose.

At the moment, the cost of litigating in the Court of Session for lower value civil cases is completely disproportionate and unfair to the public.

The Scottish Civil Courts Review found that where the sum is below £150,000, total litigation costs are likely to be 100% of the settlement value of the claim. Where the sum sought is below £50,000, total litigation costs are likely to be more than 150% of the settlement value.

Moving cases up to £150,000 out of the Court of Session will allow litigants more control over their costs. After all, access to justice does not simply mean access to counsel in every case, as experienced solicitors are capable of conducting negotiations.

In fact many of the cases which begin as high value cases are often considerably reduced by the time they are settled.

It is completely disproportionate and inappropriate that low value claims are currently heard in the Court of Session, making them overly expensive for the public. Our vision for civil justice in Scotland is one where people can find solutions through mediation, rather than going to court. However if they wish to, or have to go to court to get justice, the procedures are simple and the new summary sheriffs take a sensible problem-solving stance, and people can employ solicitors to represent them or represent themselves for lower value and more straightforward claims. The most complex consumer cases will go to the higher court as before.

We have confidence the Bill can deliver fairness for the Scottish public. By making the costs and processes more proportionate, people are more likely to pursue their rights rather than feel they can't take the risk.

Getting the courts process right in this Bill is absolutely fundamental to consumer rights in Scotland. People in Scotland must not be priced out of pursuing justice.

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