Chris Marshall: Lord Gill courting controversy

FRESH from consigning gowns and wigs to the legal past, Scotland’s most senior judge was at it again yesterday, describing district courts as a hangover from the Victorian era. Appearing before the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee, Lord Gill repeatedly defended a series of proposals contained in the Courts Reform (Scotland) Bill, the controversial piece of legislation that grew out of a review he carried out in 2007. As of this week, judges hearing civil appeals in the Court of Session no longer wear formal gowns and wigs, following a proposal by Lord Gill himself, who said it made sense “in this day and age”.

Lord Gill. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Another change that appeals to the judge’s sense of modernity is the closure of a number of smaller sheriff courts, which he yesterday described as being “semi-redundant”. A total of ten sheriff courts and seven justice of the peace courts are closing across Scotland. When asked about the impact of the move by Liberal Democrat MSP Alison McInnes, Lord Gill said the closure programme was about shutting courts that are “not being used properly”. He added: “These courts are not pulling their weight.”

According to Lord Gill, 21st century modes of transport and communication mean the courts belong to a “Victorian pattern” that is no longer viable.

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The Scottish Government agrees, but has found considerable opposition to the phased closures, which are designed to save around £1 million a year. Sheriff courts in Dornoch, Duns, Kirkcudbright, Peebles, Rothesay, Cupar, Dingwall, Arbroath, Haddington and Stonehaven are closing under the plans, along with justice of the peace courts in Annan, Irvine, Motherwell, Cumbernauld, Portree, Stornoway and Wick. Borders MSP Jim Hume claims to have uncovered plans to close the courts at Selkirk and Jedburgh, suggesting that more closures may be on the way.

According to the Scottish Court Service, the closures are “proportionate” and will not radically alter the location of where cases are heard. Prior to the process of closures beginning, 80 per cent of all cases were heard at the three High Court centres of Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow. The amount of cases heard at the courts earmarked for closure amounted to 5 per cent of overall court business.

The closures are just part of the reforms sweeping Scotland’s legal system, the “most significant changes in well over a century”, according to the Scottish Court Service. Indeed, the reform bill contains proposals to establish a specialist personal injury court and raise the financial threshold for sheriffs hearing cases from £5,000 to £150,000. Even more contentious is the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill, which proposes scrapping Scotland’s centuries-old law of corroboration. The gowns and wigs are the least of it.