Court reforms put ‘ordinary’ Scots at disadvantage

James Wolffe warns those without 'deep pockets' will lose out. Picture: Greg Macvean
James Wolffe warns those without 'deep pockets' will lose out. Picture: Greg Macvean
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PLANS to reform civil courts will put poorer Scots at a disadvantage, the new Dean of the Faculty of Advocates has warned.

James Wolffe QC, who was elected leader of the Scottish bar last week, has criticised the government plans for the courts.

He said many Scots will lose the right to be represented by an advocate when launching civil action, such as compensation claims, against big companies.

The Scottish Government’s reform of the civil courts, which are based on the recommendations of Lord President Lord Gill, will see claims worth less than £150,000 moved to sheriff courts. It is hoped this will save money for claimants and the justice system.

But Mr Wolffe warned it will put “ordinary” Scots at a disadvantage. It “will undermine the right of ordinary men and women in Scotland to be represented by a skilled and effective advocate”, he warned.

“At present, people who have claims worth more than £5,000 have a choice. They may bring those claims in their local sheriff court or in Scotland’s national civil court, the Court of Session.

“Many litigants choose the Court of Session. This proposal will take away that choice.”

Individuals who cannot afford the fees may find themselves unable to get legal aid.

He added: “In practice, that means that ordinary litigants will only be able to instruct an advocate if the court allows them to do so.

“That’s why many of those who represent the poorest paid in our society – individual trade unions and the STUC (Scottish Trades Union Congress) – share common cause with many in both branches of the legal profession on these issues.”

STUC general secretary Grahame Smith said: “STUC is concerned that the increase in the threshold under which the sheriff court can deal with civil cases from £5,000 to £150,000, combined with the removal of the automatic right to counsel, will allow significant inequality of arms issues to emerge.

“We will face the potential of trade unions being outgunned by the massive resources of the insurance industry and the big businesses they represent.

“We fail to see any other beneficiary from this measure, which will save the courts little or no resource whilst rebalancing the civil justice system in favour of the powerful.”

However, Mr Wolffe also warns businesses will suffer under the changes: “Scottish businesses will no longer have access to Scotland’s commercial court unless the claim is worth at least £150,000.”

In Northern Ireland the equivalent threshold is £30,000, while in England and Wales it is £50,000. Mr Wolffe said: “Many Scots will rightly be asking why any Scottish Government would champion a course of action which will place ordinary men and women in Scotland and Scottish businesses in a worse position than their cousins in the rest of the United Kingdom.”

The Scottish Government last night insisted those who need an advocate will still be able to access one.

A spokesman said: “By raising the sheriff court privative limit we aim to ensure more proportionate costs for all parties in civil actions, including litigants, and that their cases are heard at an appropriate level.

“While we do not agree that the cost of employing advocates should be recoverable in low-value claims, it is right that the most complex cases should continue to benefit from such expertise and that their fees should be recoverable by a successful party in those cases.

“This will continue to be the case after these reforms with the sheriff able to approve the recovery of advocate’s fees.”