Monday, April 21, 2008

Do long needed reforms risk obstructing justice for most Scots ?

Problems ahoy with increasing legislation from the Scottish Parliament who are seemingly hell bent on 'reforming' Scotland's legal system (many would say not reforming enough) ....

Some within the legal profession allege these reforms will risk justice for the most vulnerable in our society .. however, solicitors could stop that one from happening themselves .. couldn't they ?

The Scotsman reports :

Reforms risk justice for most vulnerable

By Brian Fitzpatrick

"A LEGAL system without its own legislature. Discuss." Before devolution, Scots lawyers easily managed such comparative law teasers.

Since 1999, our domestic Parliament has shown a readiness to make up for lost time with legislation. There has been a tendency to forget that, aside from producing volume, the real promise of a Parliament is measured in greater scrutiny, better value and improved public services. Taking a few steps back and asking what policy end is to be achieved is an exercise that might be recommended to our lawmakers.

One apt item on Holyrood's legal fare bill may be the forthcoming debate on reform of our civil courts. How ministers handle the issues that will emerge will be a test of just how well our legal system is faring. Even if you have missed the consultation deadline, be assured – this is a debate that will run for at least three years. But will these proposals match political realities?

Two of the most likely structural proposals relate to the introduction of an all-Scotland jurisdiction (combining the Supreme Courts and the various Sheriff Courts) and changes to how our courts allocate personal injury cases. Both measures will stir legal and political interest.

"Centralisation", "streamlining", "increased efficiencies", such terms beloved to the lips of Justice Department mandarins will not fall so easily on the ears of MSPs and ministers more likely to hear them echoed as "cuts, job losses and an attack on local services". Throw in the fact that excluding personal injury work from the Court of Session will incur the wrath of Scottish trades unions, and one might even begin to feel some sympathy for whoever is the Justice Secretary when the review reports in 2009 – just in time for the elections at Westminster and Holyrood.

The headaches for Mr McAskill or his successor do not diminish. The unions' concerns might be caricatured as them pursuing a trades union interest, but attacking civic bodies which help their members advance cases against negligent others does not seem a particularly fertile ground for garnering support. McAskill also knows that but for those unions his civil legal aid budget would be under even greater pressure.

Worse still, while reform of the Scottish legal system is now largely a matter for Holyrood, Lord Gill has tucked away in a footnote the policy equivalent of a timebomb with his reminder that the continued existence of the Court of Session as a court of first instance is a matter reserved to the UK Parliament. This nicety has not escaped the attention of various interested parties.

When McAskill remembers that it is not possible to secure by an administrative measure that which requires primary (Westminster) legislation, it might be that the passing pleasure of yet another Holyrood/Westminster spat pales somewhat. One reason might be that it is not hard to guess just which are the sort of sheriff courts most likely to have to face the writing on the wall in any streamlining.

The most substantial test is whether things will improve should the proposals proceed. As far as personal injury cases are concerned, it would be generous to claim that "the jury is out". Research on claims-handling clearly demonstrates the necessity of high-volume specialist litigators if claimants are to get a measure of equality against the insurance industry.

Without a high volume of specialist cases going through the Court of Session that equality will vanish with the prospect of real injustices being worked on some of the most vulnerable citizens. Not exactly the seed bed for reform.

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