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Ministers face U-turn on civil court shake-up

A KEY aspect of a government shake-up of Scotland's civil courts faces being dropped amid widespread criticism by lawyers and justice campaigners.

Ministers have indicated they are open to reviewing their suggestion for a new upper damages limit in sheriff court cases - and a senior Labour MSP is to suggest a lower figure.

Under the Courts Reform (Scotland) Bill, the Scottish Government wanted to increase the damages threshold for cases being heard in Sheriff Courts to £150,000, while reserving the Court of Session for bigger cases.

It was designed to make the system more efficient and free up time in the higher court for the most serious lawsuits.

However, there was fierce opposition from lawyers, trade unionists and campaigners for workers affected by asbestos illnesses, who said the increase - up from the current level of £5000 - was too great and would put people off taking legal action.

Roseanna Cunningham, the Legal Affairs Minister, has now conceded she would consider a lower level. Labour MSP Elaine Murray, deputy convener of Holyrood's Justice Committee, is to suggest £50,000 - the figure in the equivalent court in England and Wales - for an amendment to the bill next month.

Ms Cunningham revealed she had an "open mind" on the issue when she gave evidence recently to the Justice Committee, which last week published its report on the bill. She said: "I am certainly interested in seeing the committee's report and learning its final views on where the limit might be better fixed. We will look at all that. I am keeping as open a mind as I can on the limit."

In its report published last Friday, the committee also said the £150,000 figure was too high.

Ms Murray said: "I wasn't convinced the Government had made the case for the £150,000 limit and I will be putting down an amendment to the bill next month suggesting £50,000."

Individuals pursuing cases at the Court of Session have an automatic right to counsel - the services of an advocate - while no such right exists in the Sheriff Courts or a new specialist personal injury court, which the bill is aiming to establish.

Campaigners fear those taking cases to the new court or to Sheriff Courts could not afford an advocate, while insurance companies they are up against would employ specialist lawyers.

Personal injury cases make up 80% of Court of Session cases and the reforms would mean a significant transfer of business to the Sheriff Courts and personal injury court.

Last night Dave Moxham, deputy general secretary of the STUC, said: "This indication the Government is prepared to look at a lower threshold is an important and welcome development."

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said that, while it had considered £150,000 to be the most appropriate limit, it was happy to consider other views.

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