MSPs have backed contentious reforms of Scotland’s civil courts despite concerns the changes will put added pressure on the system.
The Courts Reform (Scotland) Bill was brought forward after a review by Lord Gill, which found the service was “slow, inefficient and expensive”. He said the reforms would remedy the current system, which he branded a “failure”, and said the changes were “50 years overdue”.
MSPs last night voted in favour of passing the bill, despite a number of concerns being raised. The biggest is that allowing the Court of Session to deal with only the most serious of cases will lead to sheriff courts being unable to cope. The Scottish Government calls the bill the biggest modernisation of the courts in a generation, speeding up the system. The key proposals include the establishment of a specialist personal injury court and the raising of the financial threshold for sheriffs hearing cases from £5,000 to £100,000.
“Summary sheriffs” would deal with less serious cases, as well as a court to hear appeals on the decisions of sheriffs and there will be a new three-month time limit for bringing judicial review applications.
Legal affairs minister Roseanna Cunningham said: “The bill will make justice more accessible to more people and will lower the cost of getting justice.” She said improvements had been made to the bill as a result of concerns raised during its passage through parliament. The legislation would improve the “administration of justice” and deliver a civil court system “fit for the 21st century”.
However, Conservative justice spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell said there are concerns about how the reforms would work in practice, particularly in light of recent court closures.
She said: “The Court Reform (Scotland) Bill represents a radical departure from the status quo.” The changes would, she said, need to be carefully overseen to ensure they did not put more pressure on the system.
Labour MSP Elaine Murray added: “We have concerns particularly about the capacity to adequately resource changes the bill will bring into effect.”
Kim Leslie, convener of the Law Society of Scotland’s Civil Justice Committee, said: “This bill is a major step forward in civil court reform and we recognise that the current system is long overdue for such reform.
“We very much welcome the introduction of specialist sheriffs, many of whom will be former solicitors. They will have practised in a specific area of law, such as housing or family law, for many years and will be extremely well placed to adjudicate these types of cases.”
But she added: “We do, however, still have real concerns about how the courts are going to resource some of the other changes, such as the change in the jurisdiction limit. This will have the knock-on effect of hugely increasing the number of cases going through the sheriff courts, where previously they would have been raised in the Court of Session.
“Along with the programme of court closures that is currently underway, the pressure on the system is likely to lead to delays.”