There has been much in the press of late - and it is well known amongst the profession - that a programme of reforms to the practice and procedures of the civil courts in Scotland is about to be implemented.
This follows on from the Gill Review, a comprehensive reconsideration of the way in which civil justice is accessed and implemented North of the Border, which was steered by Lord Gill, the current Lord President of the Court of Session. The results are to be found in the Courts Reform (Scotland) Act 2014, the aim of which is said to be to provide the people of Scotland with a civil justice system that matches 21st century expectations and which will safeguard the integrity of Scots law by creating an efficient court structure, with every case heard in an appropriate court and with a system accessible and cost-effective for the litigant.
In reality, this translates to a consolidation of some of the smaller sheriff courts, greater specialism at sheriff court level, a far greater proportion of civil business and appellate cases being removed from the Court of Session, and an increased reliance on digital innovation.
The reforms will start to bite as early as September this year, with the creation, in Edinburgh, of a sheriff court with Scotland-wide jurisdiction for personal injury cases, and the extension of the exclusive jurisdiction of the sheriff court to actions with a value of up to £100,000.00 - quite a dramatic development, given a litigant's current right to choose the forum in which to litigate.
It seems likely however, that access to the services of counsel in high value personal injury cases will not be precluded, even in the new personal injury court. Lord Gill has recognised that there will be many important and complex sheriff court litigations where the services of counsel should be available to either side, pointing out that s.108 of the Act imposes a positive duty on the court to sanction the employment of counsel if it considers that, in all the circumstances, it is reasonable to do so. Difficulty and complexity, and the importance and value of any claim will all be relevant considerations.
Other key reforms include the creation of summary sheriffs to deal with more routine cases, the establishment of the Sheriff Appeal Court, initially with jurisdiction for criminal cases, and from January 2016, with jurisdiction also in civil cases, and the introduction of a 'sifting' process in judicial review proceedings, which will also now be dealt with in the sheriff court.
How will it all pan out? Time will tell…watch this space!