Leaders: Law reforms must benefit all

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SCOTLAND’S courts system has been creaking at the seams for years, and drastic action has been long overdue to remedy its many failings.

The reforms announced yesterday – hailed by some observers as the most important for a generation – are a decisive and positive contribution to addressing some of those ills.

One of the craziest aspects of the system has been that straightforward civil disputes often involving just a few thousand pounds have been routinely heard in the Court of Session before high-powered judges – among them the finest minds on the Scottish bench.

The word of the law is often an arcane one – perhaps necessarily so in many ways. Its function is to bring the rigour of the law 
and the wisdom of judicial analysis to bear on the complexities of life and its inevitable disagreements. It is right that even the smallest case receives the respect it deserves, but the current system has for many years been an untenable one. Under the reforms announced yesterday, most of these relatively minor cases will now be heard by “summary sheriffs”.

This seems to make eminent good sense, freeing up the Court of Session to deal with the cases that are deemed important both for reasons of the sums of money involved or the legal complexity of the issues.

The entire system of Scots law is currently undergoing a convulsion. In addition to these reforms, some of the basic assumptions of criminal justice are under review as a consequence of Lord Carloway’s attempts to make Scots law compatible with European human rights judgments. Key aspects of Scots criminal law, such as the corroboration rule, the not proven verdict and the size of a jury could all become casualties of this process.

A legitimate concern is whether a complete reconfiguration of civil law, in addition to completely rethinking criminal law, puts an unacceptable strain on the country’s legal structures. There is no doubt both sets of reforms are necessary, but there should be a realisation on the part of all 
involved that care must be taken to ensure that what emerges on the other side of this process must be able to be seen as one coherent whole.

Take, for example, the point raised by opposition MSPs yesterday. They were full of praise for Lord Gill’s reforms, but pointed out that Scotland’s sheriff courts system is already “creaking at the seams”. In fact, this vast new tranche of work is being handed to a sheriff court system that has already been earmarked for a drastic budget cut that would entail the closing of 11 courts.

Is this level of closures now tenable? Are unwarranted assumptions being made about how the sheriff courts will be able to cope? It is good that here and now in Scotland we have judges capable of making big decisions, but let us ensure that one side of the Scottish legal system is talking to the other.

Gas profits fuel need for price watch

THE healthy profits announced yesterday by Centrica – which owns British Gas – are obviously good news for the company’s shareholders and the many pension funds that hold stakes in utilities as a matter of course. But what of the poor consumer?

The company reported an operating profit of £2.7 billion, up 14 per cent on the previous year. But it was at pains yesterday to stress that the healthy profit margins were a consequence of colder weather, with gas consumption up 12 per cent, rather than any attempt to squeeze consumers dry. But the fact remains that British Gas increased its prices to consumers by 6 per cent in November, at a time when – presumably – the company was reasonably able to say how the year was going and what the prospects for profits would be. And yet British Gas officials yesterday insisted that the profit rise and the price rises were “not connected”.

From the point of view of the consumer having to dish out more cash for basic utilities at a time when wages are being kept low by the recession, this assurance has a hollow ring about it.

The suspicion is that when times are tight, it is the consumer who takes the hit in price rises, and when times are good it is the shareholders who get the benefit in increased profits, while the consumer still gets the price rises anyway.

Welcome to capitalism, a cynic might attest. But this is an industry that is meant to be regulated by the government to protect the interests of ordinary consumers. David Cameron has shown himself commendably interested in reforming the energy giants’ bewildering array of tariffs. But it is time too that he looked at the basic issue of price rises.