Court Reform – Lord Gill Update

Lord Gill’s recent speech to the Holyrood conference was both a useful recap of the reforms that are about to be introduced into our legal system, and an interesting reminder that the task to reform our court practices is an on-going one. Lord Gill particularly used the speech to discuss some of the benefits and changes that technology brings to the courts.

9th March 2015

Lord Gill’s recent speech to the Holyrood conference was both a useful recap of the reforms that are about to be introduced into our legal system, and an interesting reminder that the task to reform our court practices is an on-going one. Lord Gill particularly used the speech to discuss some of the benefits and changes that technology brings to the courts.

Court Reforms

Lord Gill’s “Report of the Scottish Civil Courts Review” in 2009 resulted in the Courts Reform (Scotland) Act 2014 being passed by Holyrood. The first tranche of the reforms come into effect at the start of the judicial year this September. After this time, the Sheriff Courts will have exclusive jurisdiction for actions with a value of up to £100,000, and Edinburgh will host the new national personal injury Sheriff Court.

From early 2016 the new summary Sheriffs will deal with lower value claims using a new simple procedure. A Sheriff Appeal Court will have jurisdiction for civil appeals from the Sheriff Courts.

Lord Gill reminded us that “the whole purpose of these reforms is to maximise the efficiency and the output of the courts”.

Energy and Natural Resources Court

Lord Gill considered one failure and one success of the Scottish courts over last half century. The failure was not grasping the legal opportunities that arose from the North Sea oil discoveries. Scotland could have become an international forum for resolving disputes in the oil and gas industry, but instead a significant amount of North Sea oil disputes are decided outwith Scotland. The success however, was the creation twenty years ago of the specialist Commercial Court within the Court of Session.

Learning the lessons of the past, a feasibility study is to be launched into the creation of an Energy and Natural Resources Court within the Court of Session. This would be comparable to the Commercial Court, with specialist judges and its own procedure. It would aim to provide an attractive and prestigious court that would have the confidence of the energy and renewables market. That way, the court system would both serve and benefit from this important new industry.

Filming in Courts

Another area of technology that Lord Gill is keen to embrace with immediate effect is television and filming in courts. Following Lady Dorrian’s review, Lord Gill announced a new regime for filming in courts:

  • Civil and criminal appeals, as well as legal debates at first instance, can be filmed for live transmission and also for subsequent broadcasting, subject to clear guidelines as to use;
  • Some first instance civil and criminal trials can be filmed for documentary purposes, subject to safeguards and guidelines;
  • Journalists will be able to register to be allowed to use live text-based communication in the Courtroom, without the presiding judge’s permission. Those not registered will still need the presiding judge’s permission.

This aims to bring an end to the current ad hoc nature of court filming and Lord Gill hopes will “open our courts to public scrutiny and to public understanding and… de-mystify our law and its procedures”.

Technological Future

Lord Gill was clear that the courts must respond positively to technology to be an attractive forum for potential litigants and to serve the wider community. He predicted a future where the court system is paperless; where writs are filed electronically; and where judges, lawyers and witnesses interact remotely through video conferencing.

Those opposed to change who resisted his reforms were reminded that the Scottish legal world was not a static one and that as the world changed, the legal system had to pre-empt and react to it positively. Noting that our independent legal system develops and is kept alive through on-going case law, he saw clear benefits to the whole legal profession from embracing technological improvements and serving new technological industries. We await these new developments with interest.