Following on from our previous e-updates on the Scottish Civil Courts Review, one of the more interesting recommendations is for the designation of sheriffs as specialists in particular areas, including solemn crime, personal injury, family, commercial and general civil work. The possibility of designating specialist sheriffs in other areas is also considered.
If the court in which an action is raised does not have a sheriff with the relevant speciality, the case would be transferred to another court within the sheriffdom where an appropriate specialist is resident. Sheriffs principal would determine who the specialist sheriffs were within their sheriffdom. The sheriff appointed to a case would deal with all the hearings in that case and procedural business would be conducted by email, telephone, video conferencing or in writing.
The reasoning behind this proposal is to provide a greater degree of specialisation and judicial continuity in cases. The Report found that practitioners and court users were strongly in favour of a greater degree of specialisation in sheriff courts. The advantage of specialist sheriffs is not only that they would have the required expertise in the relevant area of law but also that they would allow for a service tailored to the dispute. The sheriff would have a greater understanding of the circumstances out of which different disputes in their specialist field arise and the remedies that the parties are seeking.
Personal injury claims account for much of the congestion in the civil justice system, therefore, it is proposed that a specialist Personal Injury Court with jurisdiction throughout Scotland should be created and based at Edinburgh Sheriff Court. It is proposed that the right to a jury trial would exist before the specialist Personal Injury Court. Pursuers could still raise an action locally but would have the option of taking their case to a specialist Sheriff Court. The most serious and complex cases, however, would still go to the Court of Session, subject of course to the increase in the limit of the sheriff court's jurisdiction, which we reported on last Friday.
The above reforms tie in with the Review's proposals for a new case management system, which we commented on yesterday. The introduction of specialist sheriffs and a specialist court should allow for cases to be dealt with more efficiently. A sheriff with experience of the subject matter would bring significant benefits to a system that adopts active case management. Many of the benefits would be lost if, for example, the presiding sheriff in an actively managed personal injury case had no experience of personal injury work.
An additional proposal which is relevant to the aim of dealing with cases more efficiently is the establishment of a national Sheriff Appeal Court. It is hoped that this would ease pressure on the Court of Session and thus allow appeals to be dealt with more quickly. The Report proposes that such a court would hear summary criminal and civil appeals from district judges and sheriffs and that those decisions should be binding on all sheriffs throughout Scotland.
Venturing into the field of criminal justice is a radical step for a review of the civil courts. The introduction of specialist sheriffs would be made easier by removing from sheriffs the burden of low value cases and summary criminal work. This would be handled by a new type of judge, the district judge. The Review's recommendations for district judges will be considered by us tomorrow.