John’s Speech in the Stage 1 Court Reform Debate

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Ind): “It is a welcome focus for the Justice Committee to be looking at civil rather than criminal matters. Like my colleagues, I support the principles of the bill. I also support the specialisations that are to take place and the summary sheriffs. Some of the specialisations, particularly for domestic violence and family law, are going to require a great deal of specialism. It was unhelpful that the term “low value” was used to class specialisations. We need to be very careful about our terminology—we heard that very graphically from Scottish Women’s Aid.

It was in 1587 that the Scottish Parliament gave the accused the statutory right to be represented by counsel, which was 150 years before that right was afforded in the jurisdiction immediately to our south. Even earlier than that, in 1424, the Scottish Parliament enacted legislation requiring the appointment of advocates to represent poor litigants. The Faculty of Advocates tells me in a document:

“The principle that legal representation should be available to all who need it is built into the DNA of our society.”

I do not think that anyone would dispute that.

We are told that the purpose of the bill is to improve efficiency, effectiveness and proportionality. As we have heard from a number of speakers, it is certainly the view that the Court of Session operates very effectively. We have heard assurances from Lord Gill about the sheriff courts, but clearly we have also heard concerns about that. It is not simply about the technology, not least because the personal injury court is likely to occupy the same building; it is about the procedures that are going to be adopted. We have heard that they are expected to result in cost savings.

Sanction for counsel is an issue that I place great store in. It was a key aspect of the evidence that we heard from the EIS, the Scottish Police Federation and the Scottish Trades Union Congress. The STUC talked about the imbalance inherent in the employee-employer relationship, nowhere more so than in health and safety. The STUC also acknowledged that that imbalance was in part addressed by health and safety laws, which as we know are reserved, and a court system that ensured that workers had access to the best representation and were certainly never going to be outgunned in terms of representation. What we heard from the cabinet secretary on equality of arms is therefore certainly welcome.

There has been some discussion about section 69 of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013. I see that as a further attack on workers’ terms and conditions. We know that are no simple health and safety cases at this time. I welcome the personal injury court and the discussion, which needs to be on-going, about sanction for counsel, the complexity of cases, the length of cases and, not least, the equality of arms. We often have discussions about what should be in the bill and what should be in guidance, and I am keen that we do not have to rely on benevolent interpretation of guidance. I will therefore propose an amendment to have a statutory presumption in favour of sanction for counsel in relation to work-related incidents.

In the short time that is left to me, I commend the fact that our report talks about an environmental justice court. I encourage the Scottish Government to stick to its 2011 manifesto pledge on that issue. The issue was raised in answer to Patrick Harvie. It is important that we adhere to the Aarhus convention. The most important thing is that our civil justice system serves the people, but it is important that we do not throw out the baby with the bath water as regards the service that we have had from various people, not least the advocates.

The rural dimension has been considered. I assure Liam McArthur that it has been addressed. Justice needs to be accessible to everyone, regardless of location. I am content that we are going to address those matters on an on-going basis.”


You can watch the speech here: