This penultimate part of our series of updates on the recently passed Courts Reform (Scotland) Bill examines the creation of a new judicial entity: the Summary Sheriff. 

The rationale

The Report of the Scottish Civil Courts Review recommended the creation of a third tier of the judiciary to deal with lower value financial disputes and some areas of litigation which are intended to focus on judicial intervention and assistance to parties.

As we discussed in an earlier update (Courts Reform (Scotland) Bill - Privative Jurisdiction), the Bill increases the privative jurisdiction of the Sheriff Courts to £100,000. The Scottish Government did not want to increase the privative jurisdiction without introducing another tier of judiciary. As such, the Bill creates the position of Summary Sheriff to share jurisdiction with Sheriffs in low value and straightforward civil actions, as well as in summary criminal business.

Competencies and appointments

One of the other reforms that the Bill introduces is the Simple Procedure for actions for values up to £5,000 (Courts Reform (Scotland) Bill - Simple Procedure). Presiding over these cases will form a core part of the Summary Sheriff's role. They are meant to be hands on and, for example, will be empowered to intervene to request evidence relevant to the facts of the case to ensure that cases proceed promptly.

In addition to the new Simple Procedure, Summary Sheriffs will have competence in family proceedings, housing petitions, appeals and referrals from Children's Hearings, extension of time to pay debts, and cases which regularly involve Party Litigants. It is hoped that the creation of this new post will allow these types of cases to be dealt with more efficiently.

Like Sheriffs, Summary Sheriffs will require to have been legally qualified (i.e. be a Solicitor or an Advocate) throughout the 10 years prior to their appointment in the role. Although Summary Sheriff's salaries are still to be set, it is also likely that they will be remunerated at around 80% of the salary of Sheriffs, which should lead to significant savings.

Comment

There are undoubtedly benefits to be realised from introducing judges that are trained to deal with low value disputes and to be more closely involved in actions where this would be of great assistance to the parties concerned. However, concerns have been raised that Summary Sheriffs will be seen as a lower level of justice. Given the lower salaries and less complex workload, it is also feared that the post may not attract the same high calibre individuals as those attracted to the position of Sheriff.

The Scottish Government is keen to ensure that this will not be the case, and how these issues are dealt with will significantly impact on whether or not Summary Sherrifs achieve the aims of their introduction.