To be effective, justice must be accessible.
The plans for sweeping changes to Scotland's civil courts announced yesterday should make that more likely by reducing costs for claimants. When the legal costs of bringing an action outweigh the amount awarded in compensation in four out of five claims of £10,000 or less, the system is in clear need of reform.
Government advisers say there is unlikely to be an increase in personal injury claims as a result of the drop in costs. That remains to be tested but it should result in fewer people being excluded from seeking recompense. In a series of measures adopting many of the recommendations from Lord Gill's major review of civil justice in 2009, the Scottish Government's blueprint offers much-needed reform of the courts. Practicality underlies many of them, notably raising the ceiling for claims to be heard in the sheriff courts from £5000 to £150,000. This will enable two-thirds of cases heard in the Court of Session to be transferred to the sheriff courts, reducing costs (to the taxpayer as well as the litigant) and time.
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Even if most claims are settled out of court, how this additional workload is to be accommodated in conjunction with controversial plans to close 11 sheriff courts across the country must be thoroughly interrogated. The plans offer a means of providing a swifter remedy but that will not be achieved if a queue at the Court of Session is replaced by a bottleneck at the sheriff court.
Appointing summary sheriffs to deal with minor cases should help. If they lack expertise, that ought to be counterbalanced by a new specialist claims court in Edinburgh (with a similar arrangement possible in Glasgow). This is a welcome recognition of the value of expert knowledge in an area which is becoming more complex. Victims of accidents and injuries often need specialist representation and there is doubt over whether they will have access to QCs and what levels of claim will be decided in the claims court.
Reducing the length of time in the legal process is one of the aims of the reform. Imposing a new time bar of three months on judicial review case questions may prove unhelpful. Such cases tend to be complicated and often have a wider significance, for example when determining the duties of public bodies. Responses on whether the proposed three months is sufficient must be taken into consideration.
The Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill believes this package of reforms will reduce unnecessary delays, cost and bureaucracy. That is commendable and there is clearly scope for increased efficiency but the reforms will succeed only if the rights of the individual remain paramount.