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We are in the middle of the most extensive changes to our civil court system in over a century.

Given that the previous system was considered, in the words of Lord Gill, to be ‘slow, inefficient and expensive’, a review and report led to the Courts Reform (Scotland) Act 2014. This Act, which received Royal Assent on 10 November 2014, introduces many of the recommendations of the report and is aimed at modernising our civil justice system to make it expeditious, efficient and cost effective

The reforms set out in the Act are being introduced in stages. The most significant changes so far are:

  • Sheriff Courts now have exclusive competence to hear Actions with a value up to £100,000. This is a vast increase from the £5,000 threshold previously applied to Sheriff Court actions. This means many cases which would previously have been raised in the Court of Session in Edinburgh will now be raised in more local Sheriff Courts.
  • An all-Scotland Sheriff Personal Injury Court has been established in anticipation of the increased pressures facing Sheriff Courts. The court will sit in Edinburgh with a Scotland wide jurisdiction taking on much of the personal injury work excluded from the Court of Session by the £100,000 jurisdiction threshold. It is hoped the Personal Injury Court will allow cases to be dealt with promptly and at the appropriate level by specialised Sheriff’s, reducing costs for all litigants. On the topic of specialist Courts, it is anticipated there will be a feasibility study into the creation of an Energy & Natural Resources Court in the Court of Session.
  • Appeals from the Sheriff and Justice of the Peace Courts will now be heard by the newly established Sheriff Appeal Court. The Appeal Court is only hearing criminal appeals at present, but will start hearing civil appeals in January 2016. At present appeals from the Sheriff Court can be made to either the Sheriff Principal or direct to the Court of Session. One advantage of the single Sheriff Appeal Court is that it will reduce the risk of Sheriffdoms across Scotland differing in their interpretation of the law. The number of Sheriffs in the Appeal Court will also differ depending on the complexity of a case, whereas the Sheriff Principal at present sits alone. These changes are designed at driving efficiency across the court system for litigants and embody the aims of the court reforms.
  • Judicial Review applications – typically challenges to decisions by Councils and other government related bodies – now have to be made within 3 months of the decision challenged and there is a need to get the Court’s permission to proceed.

There are still further changes to come with the present Small Claims and Summary Cause procedures being consolidated into one simple procedure –more about that in a forthcoming blog!

Whilst the reforms are described by SCTS Chief Operating Officer David Fraser as “part of the most visionary changes for the courts in more than a century” they are being implemented in the backdrop of recent Sheriff Court closures and budget cuts. How the Sheriff Court system will manage the expected increase in work remains to be seen. It will be a testing time but one which will hopefully create a system which provides an accessible justice system for all in Scotland.

Henry Oliver, Trainee

Chambers UK 2106

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