On 27 February 2013, the Scottish Government released details of its proposals to reform the Scottish court system. This follows on from the report of Lord Gill who was appointed to review the operation of civil courts in Scotland. The results are bound to change the face of the Scottish court system and, in particular, are designed to improve the responsiveness and efficiency of the current court structure.
Of particular interest is the announcement of a specialist personal injury sheriff court. The new court is designed to tackle what Lord Gill's review team identified as "the need for a greater degree of judicial specialisation". Moving the personal injury cases to a specialist court should free up resources for commercial cases. In England and Wales, specialist courts are already in operation including the Technology and Construction, Administrative and Commercial Courts to name but three. These courts have been in operation for some time which has provoked questions over the more generalised approach adopted by the Scottish court system. To this end, the Scottish Government can look down south for inspiration as to how best to introduce this new specialist personal injury court.
Personal injury cases accounted for 76% of business in the General Department of the Court of Session in 2011-12 therefore it is hoped that the new court will help ease pressure on the Court of Session and, as such, reduce the current lengthy waiting periods. In 2011-12 there were 7,792 personal injury cases initiated in the civil courts which is a decrease of 15% compared with the previous year.
In addition to the creation of this new personal injury court, the Scottish Government has also announced the following:
- The creation of a 'summary sheriff' – a role which is to be introduced to hear less serious civil and criminal proceedings which would otherwise be referred to the Court of Session.
- An increase in the value of claims which the Sheriff Court can deal with – from the current threshold of £5,000 to a new limit of £150,000.
- An overhaul of the process for bringing judicial review actions which includes a new deadline of three months in which applications can be made and which is designed to strike out actions that from the outset have little merit or chance of success.
- Finally, a new Sheriff Appeal Court is to be formed which can hear certain civil and criminal appeals.
It is clear that further details are required before interested parties can fully assess the potential impact of the proposals. However, in the meantime, all eyes will be on developments south of the border where significant reform to civil litigation costs and funding will very soon be coming into force. The English reforms follow on from the report of Lord Justice Jackson which highlighted the spiralling costs of civil litigation. Commentators, however, have attacked the late disclosure of details surrounding much of these reforms and have warned of chaos and increased costs to clients as a direct result. In the coming months, the Scottish Government will no doubt watch with interest to observe how the English system copes when the Jackson reforms come into force on 1 April 2013.