The Courts Reform (Scotland) Act has received the Royal Assent. Commenting on the reforms, Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill said:
“This new legislation will bring about the most important change for Scottish courts for more than a generation.”
The Key Proposals
The legislation was preceded by a wide ranging review led by Scotland’s most senior judge, Lord Gill. His review made over 200 recommendations for reform, the majority of which are included in the Act.
Raising the exclusive limit of the Sheriff Court
The most recent civil court statistics (published in March 2014) show that while the number of civil cases being heard at Sheriff Court level has been declining – down 43 per cent since 2008-09, the number of civil cases being heard at the Court of Session has remained steady. A cornerstone of the reforms involves moving litigation to the Sheriff Court; only the most complex and important cases should be heard in the Court of Session. It was initially proposed that the Sheriff Court would deal with cases up to £150,000 in value. However, an amendment at Stage 2 saw the threshold lowered to £100,000.
The Act provides for increased sheriff specialisation, both in the form of specialisation by individual Sheriffs and specialist courts, such as the proposed specialist personal injury court with Scotland-wide jurisdiction. According to the March 2014 civil court statistics, personal injury cases accounted for 79 per cent of cases raised in the Court of Session.
A new judicial tier of "Summary Sheriff"
The 'Summary Sheriff' will hear both civil and criminal cases, freeing up Sheriffs to concentrate on more serious or complex cases. The Summary Sheriffs will hear cases with a value of £5,000 or less.
A new Sheriff Appeal Court
The new Sheriff Appeal Court, with national jurisdiction, will hear civil appeals from Sheriffs and Summary Sheriffs and all summary procedure criminal appeals. Members of the Sheriff Appeal Court will comprise existing Sheriffs Principal and a number of experienced Sheriffs, and its decisions will be binding on lower courts.
The cost and funding of civil litigation in Scotland has also been under review, with Sheriff Principal Taylor reporting on this issue in September 2013. The Scottish Government Response to that review was issued in June 2014. Implementation of the recommendations on costs and funding will be taken forward on an incremental basis, to allow co-ordination with implementation of Courts Reform (Scotland) Act.
Timetable for reform
The Scottish Courts website states that implementation of the reforms requires a reasonable lead in time and that phased changes to court services, such as the appointment of Summary Sheriffs and the operation of specialist courts will commence from the autumn of 2015 onwards.