Court reforms to hit rural areas

Sheriff Court, Duns
Sheriff Court, Duns
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Key aspects of a Bill to reform the Scottish civil courts have been questioned by the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee in a report published this week.

The Courts Reform (Scotland) Bill seeks to make major changes to the Scottish civil court system following a review which called the system “slow, inefficient and expensive”.

The Bill’s measures include the creation of a new office of ‘summary sheriff’ to cover a restricted range of civil and criminal matters and the establishment of a Scotland-wide court, intended to deal with personal injury cases.

But, in welcoming the general principles of the Bill, the Committee raised concerns about increasing the monetary threshold for an action in the sheriff court from £5,000 to £150,000.

Committee Convener Christine Grahame MSP said: “There can be no doubt from the evidence we heard that reform of the Scottish civil court system is long overdue. However, our Committee is not convinced that some of the measures in the Bill will necessarily achieve what is hoped.

“Improving access to justice is a key part of the Bill. Freeing up the Court of Session to deal with the most serious cases is a step in the right direction. However, raising the monetary threshold from £5,000 to the proposed £150,000 raised questions about whether this is too great a leap.

“Not only would these reforms perhaps restrict access to counsel, but there are concerns about the capacity of sheriff courts to deal with the increase in cases. Our Committee recommends that the Scottish Government give serious consideration to lowering the monetary limit.”

The Committee welcomed proposals to create a nationwide Sheriff Appeal Court, but considered that all appeals should be heard by sheriffs principal rather than sheriffs as their judgments would apply throughout Scotland.

It also heard evidence on the role honorary sheriffs play in rural areas where a sheriff may not be available. Whilst agreeing the position of honorary sheriff should be abolished, the Committee asked for assurances that rural and remote areas will not be disadvantaged by this approach.