SCOTLAND’S most senior judge has defended controversial court reforms, claiming they are “50 years overdue”.
Appearing before the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee yesterday, Lord Gill said the Courts Reform (Scotland) Bill would remedy the current system, which he branded a “failure” due to the amount of time and public money it wastes.
Both the Faculty of Advocates and the Law Society of Scotland have criticised the bill, which seeks to implement many of the recommendations of a review carried out by Lord Gill in 2007.
According to the Scottish Government, the bill will be the biggest modernisation of the courts in a generation, speeding up a system which Lord Gill described as “slow, inefficient and expensive” in his review.
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 £150,000.
Giving evidence to MSPs, Lord Gill, who is Lord President of the Court of Session, said: “I think some of the opponents of this proposal have said it’s a 3,000 per cent increase, and that seems a startling figure, but it’s only because the base figure [£5,000] is preposterous. In many cases, the legal costs have already outstripped the value of the case before the lunch adjournment, and that just can’t go on.”
Asked by the committee’s deputy convener, Labour MSP Elaine Murray, about raising the threshold more gradually, Lord Gill said: “I don’t think it would be wise to have some sort of staging exercise … it would be a never-ending debate.”
He said it was “entirely understandable” that some would have concerns about the reforms, but he said the current system was a “failure”.
“Public money is being inefficiently spent in the present system,” he said. “The whole thinking behind this bill is how it affects the public purse. I would hope that the committee would support this bill and the outcome will be a huge saving in public costs. It’s probably 50 years overdue.”
Fiona Robb, secretary to the Law Society’s civil justice committee, said: “We think the Scottish Government is right to raise the threshold. However, we would prefer to see the limit set at no more than £50,000.
“The Scottish Courts Service needs to ensure that sheriff courts are properly resourced to manage this significant transfer of business, particularly with the programme of closures currently taking place.
“Without sufficient resources, court users and the administration of justice overall could face substantial delays.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We must make sure that our civil justice system becomes more accessible, affordable and efficient for those seeking to resolve civil disputes.
“The bill aims to do this by ensuring the right cases are heard at the appropriate level, freeing up the Court of Session to deal with the most complex disputes.”