Obituary: James Taylor, former Sheriff Principal of Glasgow & Strathkelvin

James Taylor fought to see that all had access to justiceJames Taylor fought to see that all had access to justice
James Taylor fought to see that all had access to justice
James Alistair Taylor, former Sheriff Principal. Born: 21 February 1951 in Inverness. Died: 9 March 2021 in Nairn, aged 70

Former Sheriff Principal of Glasgow & Strathkelvin, James Taylor, who has died in his hometown of Nairn at the age of 70, had a varied and successful legal career and made a significant contribution to the improvement and modernisation of procedures in Scotland’s courts.

James was born in Inverness and raised in Nairn, where his father was the local bank manager and where his mother lived well into her nineties. The place and its people remained close to his heart throughout his life. He attended Nairn Academy in the town, where as well as accumulating the academic prizes associated with “a lad o’ pairts”, he also acquired a lifelong passion for golf, at one time playing off scratch.

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He completed a BSc degree in Chemistry at the University of Aberdeen, before changing paths and graduating in law.

James loved music, all kinds of music. Whilst in later life he and his wife Lesley would frequent great Italian opera venues such as Verona or jazz clubs like Ronnie Scott’s, James also had an encyclopaedic knowledge of classic Seventies rock, as well as a particular, if unlikely, penchant for Tamla Motown and Northern Soul. It was this latter expertise that James put to good use to self-fund his LLB degree, setting up the James Taylor Travelling Disco, and becoming a well-known figure amongst the gilded youth of Aberdeen as its resident DJ.

James’s initiation into the legal profession was in Aberdeen. After graduation he was apprenticed at Brander and Cruikshank, Advocates, practised at Lefevre and Co., Advocates, and became a partner at A.C. Morrison and Richards. By that time, he had covered the whole spectrum of High Street solicitor legal work including matrimonial, personal injury, and employment, before specialising in commercial work. It was this breadth of experience which gave him the insight into human nature in its variety of legal relationships, something that was to prove invaluable to his work in later years. He believed that law was for the people, and that those who did not know their rights, or could not exercise them, had – in effect – none.

In 1987 James, Lesley and their young family moved to Glasgow, where he joined the Glasgow office of McGrigor Donald, first as an assistant in the commercial litigation department, then as a partner just one year later, and finally as head of litigation.

In 1988, the Government set up an Inquiry into the Piper Alpha disaster. McGrigor Donald was instructed to act and James leapt at the opportunity to become involved. With his enormous capacity for detail, his reputation was established as someone who could handle complex, long-running cases. In subsequent years he acted in the Ocean Odyssey Fatal Accident Inquiry, the Inquiry into the Removal of Children from Orkney, and the Inquiry into the Dunblane School killings.

In 1993, James became one of Scotland’s first solicitor advocates, specialising in civil litigation and appearing regularly in the higher courts. In 1998 he was appointed sheriff in Edinburgh, before becoming the Commercial sheriff at Glasgow and Strathkelvin in 1999.

His contribution to the success of what was then, for the Sheriff Court, very much a novelty, cannot be emphasised strongly enough. The ethos of the Commercial Court, with its emphasis on case management by specialist judges, its removal of procedural obstacles and its early identification and resolution of critical issues, was one which he grasped and promoted with enthusiasm.

In 2005, James was appointed Sheriff Principal at Glasgow and Strathkelvin, dealing with all civil appellate matters arising in what is one of the busiest courts in Europe, introducing case management into the dispensation of justice far beyond commercial cases, gathering an LLD in 2013 from the University of Glasgow and teaching at the University of Strathclyde as a visiting Professor. But his most significant contribution to public life was yet to come.

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The Scottish courts at the beginning of the 21st century were an ad hoc profusion of archaic practices and procedures, many of which were unchanged from the 19thcentury.

The criminal courts had just undergone an exhaustive review of its practices and procedures by Lord Bonomy when the then Lord Justice Clerk, Brian Gill QC, was charged with planning and implementing root and branch reform of the civil courts. James was part of a close-knit advisory “Board of Four” and his voice was a strong formative influence in Lord Gill’s Scottish Civil Courts Review 2009, later to become the Civil Courts (Reform) (Sc) Act 2014.

But architectural reform meant nothing to James until and unless the question of legal costs was addressed. For him “Access to Justice” was a meaningless shibboleth unless it meant access to the courts. And there could be no access to justice whilst the economics of litigation meant that access to the courts was available only to the rich, or to the very poor in the form of an increasingly beleaguered Legal Aid scheme.

His wide-ranging intelligence and eclectic reading caused him to identify the business of law as the archetypical “asymmetrical market”. Well-funded institutional “repeat players” such as insurers enjoyed systemic advantage over “one shotters”, those consumers whose only brush with civil law was likely to be the single matter in hand.

In his Review of Expenses in Civil Litigation (2013), James addressed this issue head-on, making radical changes to the costs regime, and increasing transparency and fairness. It is undoubtedly a legal tour de force, which together with the Gill reforms in which he played an integral part, is shaping and transforming the whole legal landscape of this country.

James retired as Sheriff Principal in 2011, devoting the following years to completing his Review and appearing in 2018 before the Justice Committee of the Scottish Parliament, which was considering how to implement his Review in legislation. His absence from public life in the intervening years had diminished neither his charm nor his forensic skills. His proposals were passed virtually unaltered in the Civil (Expenses and Group Proceedings) (Sc) Act 2018.

Whilst his feet may have left Nairn, his heart and soul had not. In 2013 he and Lesley retired there for James to reacquaint himself with the town of his boyhood, and particularly with The Nairn Golf Club.

In a cruel twist of fate, he was shortly thereafter diagnosed with prostate cancer. He bore the advance of his illness with courage, resilience and stoical good humour, fortified by the care and attention of a devoted family and countless friends.

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Despite the valiant efforts of the Urology Unit at The Royal Marsden, London and his consultant Professor Ros Eeles, James finally succumbed peacefully at home on 9 March 2021, with Lesley at his side.

He is survived by Lesley, his sons Andrew and Robbie, and his much-loved grandchildren, Angus and Calum, of all of whom he was extremely proud.

James had a gift for friendship and accumulated a host of friends from his many walks of life. He wore his honours and his learning lightly. He possessed high self-confidence, courage and self-belief, but absent of any arrogance or ego – with the possible exception of his golf; having over-clubbed through the green he once seriously suggested that the rangefinder must be wrong.

James Taylor was a man of strong religious faith, serving as a Church Elder in Queen’s Cross Aberdeen; in Newlands South, Glasgow; in Nairn Old Parish; and finally as Session Clerk at Nairn United Reformed Church.

Following his retirement in Nairn, he advised at the local Citizen’s Advice Bureau. From 2004-2012, whilst in Glasgow, he was a Director of the Lodging House Mission, a Christian community dedicated to the care of the homeless, the vulnerable and the excluded, and where he regularly volunteered as a day helper. Just as in his professional life, James was committed to faith in action.



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