Leaders: Promise of legal overhaul to be welcomed

The High Court in Edinburgh. Picture: Ian Georgeson
The High Court in Edinburgh. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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SCOTLAND’S new senior judge impresses with his pledge to address millions being wasted in courts and to look into further reform

The revelations last year that more than £10 million was effectively being wasted every year in Scotland’s courts by needless appearances prompted widespread anger and inevitable suspicions of lawyers “working the system” to enhance their own fees. So the pledge from the country’s new Lord President of the Court of Session, Scotland’s top judge, that this will be addressed and that further reforms may be needed, is to be welcomed.

Lord Carloway, who spoke as he was formally installed in office yesterday, was behind controversial proposals to abolish the ancient principle of corroboration in Scots law. This was eventually dropped by the SNP government, so it is to be hoped his ambitions to tackle the level of churn and late disposals in the sheriff court system will meet with greater success. The length of time for justice to be meted out in Scotland is a growing problem.

The public spending watchdog Audit Scotland, in a report last year, found that between 2010-11 and 2014-15, the percentage of cases completed within 26 weeks fell from 73 per cent to 65 per cent. There are a number of reasons behind this, including a rise in the number of crimes being reported and a welcome increase in the number of domestic abuse and historic sexual offences cases which have been going to trial. But resources are critical and the court and prosecution budgets have suffered as the impact of austerity cuts hit hard in recent years.

Since 2010-11 the budgets of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service have experienced a greater reduction than the overall budget of the Scottish Government. The most obvious impact on the judicial system has been a raft of court closures across the country two years ago which prompted widespread protests in communities affected. This is why the perceived “waste” of £10m in needless appearances, against a wider budget of £200m to prosecute sheriff court cases, caused such consternation. And this at a time when the number of cases being dealt with is on the rise. That Lord Carloway is pledging to address these issues is to be welcomed. Similarly, the indication that courts will have to keep pace with technological developments in the age of email and texting is also a welcome recognition from an often conservative judiciary of the changing times.

It would be unfair to suggest that nothing is being done by the Scottish Government to address outstanding issues, with the Justice Board having helped improve joint working between key national bodies and management of the system. And yesterday also saw Scottish ministers unveil the latest stage of its court reforms with new Sheriff Appeal Court which will hear civil appeals from sheriff courts, as part of the government’s reform of the system aimed at ensuring the right cases are heard in the right courts. With the new Lord President also setting out to solve the “fine balance” between judges hearing cases, reading and writing their rulings in the Court of Session, there is a sense of optimism that some of the key challenges facing Scotland’s legal system are being tackled.

Tough lesson for British Army

Military discipline lies at the heart of life in the armed forces. The need to know that soldiers can rely on the man at their side can be a matter of life and death, especially given the action our troops have found themselves plunged into in recent years. But there can be no excuse for the punishment “beastings” dispensed at Lucknow Barracks in Wiltshire which led to the death of Private Gavin Williams, who collapsed of heatstroke and suffered heart failure after being forced to undertake intensive exercise.

That this kind of behaviour was going on in the armed forces is not a huge surprise, where the “prank” of an initiation ceremony can be the first taste of a culture of intimidation. But whatever problems there may have been with the behaviour of Pte Williams, there has to be other ways of addressing his conduct without the chain of command apparently deciding to dispense their own brand of justice. And what of the wider impact this will have on discipline and morale in the army? Brigadier John Donnelly has apologised on behalf of the British Army and acknowledged there was “a culture of unofficial punishments” within the battalion at the time. That Captain Mark Davis, who was said to have demanded that Pte Williams be brought to him “hot and sweaty”, was in the process of being promoted at the time, prompted an angry outburst from the coroner at yesterday’s inquest. It did not reflect well on the sense of duty and responsibility expected of the military hierarchy.

We can only sympathise with the family of Pte Williams and hope that their goal has been achieved – of not only exposing the culture of punishment “beastings”, but of bringing this unacceptable practice to an end.