Scottish Court Service blocked the success of independent research into civil justice court users. A survey of Scots experiences in using the civil justice system, funded by Consumer Focus Scotland, managed by the Scottish Legal Aid Board, and implemented by market research group IPSOS-MORI, which was initially hoped would interview hundreds of people but eventually only took in the views of 35 court users, is raising questions from consumers & solicitors after it was revealed the Scottish Court Service had effectively blocked the wider success of the research, by refusing to hand over court documents & data to the researchers. The uncooperative attitude of the Court Service has led to accusations the SCS has diminished the effectiveness of the survey, which has today been revealed to have cost the taxpayer at least £30,000.
The Scottish Legal Aid Board received £30K from Consumer Focus to manage the research. Colin Lancaster, Director of Policy & Development at the Scottish Legal Aid Board commented : "The Board received a contribution of £30,000 from Consumer Focus Scotland for the commissioning of the work. The Board contributed the internal resource to cover the commissioning exercise and project management for the research. A total of £28,400 (inc. VAT) has been paid for the development, fieldwork and reporting on the first phase of the research. The findings report will be published in the next couple of weeks. Before the research is published we will be formally handing the findings over to Lord Gill. The cost of the research should be viewed across the life of the project, including any second phase. This work is in an area where unfortunately there was little previous research to learn from in terms of approach, methodology, research tools etc.”
He continued : “We commissioned the work to a highly reputable research contractor with excellent quality control mechanisms. The work was carried out by senior researchers with expertise in qualitative research and in talking to people about potentially emotional experiences and subject areas. The field work was very time consuming, requiring our contractor to design interview schedules, work with a number of separate agencies, follow up leads, secure consent and an interview time, interview, code, analyse and report."
You can read more about the research specification for the project, here : Research Specification - Consumer Views & Experiences of using the Civil Courts in Scotland (pdf)
Consumer Focus Scotland let it be known the Scottish Court Service had refused access to court records for the research. A spokeswoman for Consumer Focus Scotland, asked about the aims of their research, said : "Our intention was therefore to gather evidence that would help us to better understand the nature and drivers of individual civil court users’ views and experiences of the sheriff courts. We hoped that the research would provide useful evidence for the civil courts review."
"We had set out to do a large scale quantitative survey of the experiences of people who had been involved in the courts process. However, we were unable to do so when early in the process the Scottish Court Service advised us that for data protection reasons they were unable to allow us access to the necessary court records. While this was very disappointing, we had to look for other ways of carrying out the research. A qualitative methodology was then developed through approaching in-court advisers, and through using data on legally aided parties held by SLAB."
She continued : "In terms of how we will use the research, the final research report following the interviews with 35 people with experience of the civil courts will be published next month, and will be sent to the civil courts review. We hope that it will provide a useful evidence base for the review and for the Scottish government in taking forward any future reforms of the civil justice system, as well as any possible future research."
"The final research report will not therefore give the broad perspective that we had initially sought, but will provide an important snapshot of the experiences of the people involved."
The whole idea of reforming Scotland's civil courts was begun over six years ago, when the Scottish Consumer Council, with the support of the then Scottish Executive, secured funding from the Nuffield Foundation to carry out a series of seminars to critically examine the civil justice system, and to encourage proposals for change and development. The SCC set up a Civil Justice Advisory Group representing various stakeholder interests, chaired by the Right Honourable Lord Coulsfield, to take the process forward.
The final report of the Advisory Group was published in November 2005. It concluded that while some aspects of the system are working well, there was a need for review of a number of aspects of the system, which in turn brought the announcement in February 2007 during the previous administration of a review of the civil courts, led by Lord Gill, the Lord Justice Clerk, which you can read more about here : Civil Courts Review
However, today even members of the legal profession questioned the effectiveness of the independent research effort, after it was leaked a few weeks ago, that plans by Scottish Ministers to use the results of the survey to scale back some of Lord Gill's proposals for civil justice reform, had to be themselves scaled back after media outlets including 'Diary of Injustice' published the fact that only 35 people had taken part in the actual research project.
A legal insider said : "With only 35 people being interviewed for a survey to support the Gill civil court review, it must make people wonder what on earth is going on in the justice system when the author of the review Lord Gill stands up at a conference, effectively calls Scots law antiquated, and then the Court Service who are running the Gill review, effectively block the Consumer Focus survey from obtaining interviews of court users by refusing to hand over documents to the research teams."
"With the obstructive attitude from the Court Service, anyone would think they didn't want the Consumer Focus research to succeed in reporting actual court users experiences to back up the Gill reforms. Why didn’t someone get MacAskill to do something about it ?"
He continued : "While I'm sure the research team has done a great job working within the restrictions forced on them by the SCS, in the end, a survey of only 35 people to back up what is being billed as a wide ranging set of reform proposals to Scotland's civil justice system is not as potent as a survey with a few hundred court users who could easily have been found had it not been for the SCS, and this would have sat a lot better alongside Lord Gill's report."
An ex highly placed official of the Scottish Consumer Council when asked for their opinion on the problems encountered by the researchers said : "The Scottish Consumer Council would never have settled for such a small head count on a project of such importance as this."
He continued : "Perhaps the Scottish Court Service felt a bit put out that independent research was being done into their own review and that was the real reason they blocked the researcher's access to more information. I think the problems of ‘data protection’ could have been easily ironed out if someone from the Scottish Government had stepped in and ‘banged heads together’."
The Scottish Court Service were asked for comment on why they had refused to hand over documentation to the research team to assist the consumer orientated survey. However, they have not replied to enquiries.
Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill could have done much to assist the independent research into civil court users access to justice. The Consumer Focus report is due for release tomorrow, 31 July, and while its contents should prove interesting, I am left wondering why there has not been more cooperation between the Scottish Courts Service, Consumer Focus Scotland, the Scottish Legal Aid Board, and of course, the Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, who himself could have seen to it the CFS sponsored research obtained a much greater sample of people to generate as much valuable information as possible, from civil justice court users, and of course, many others across Scotland who find it impossible to even get into a court.
After all, It is fairly obvious now that in Scotland, there are many people who are denied access to the civil justice system, either through lack of access to legal representation, lack of information and advice, and because the court process is itself, intimidating, remote, complex and expensive. This prejudice, by the legal system, against the public, must be ended, with full thought given to the public interest, rather than the usual prioritising of the vested interests of the legal profession, who prefer to maintain their long held monopoly on access to justice by forcing consumers down the usual route of engaging the exorbitantly costly & very poor quality legal services on offer by Scotland’s legal profession.
Surely the needs of ordinary Scots who cannot obtain access to justice in our own country must be addressed, and the public granted freedom to use a modern day civil justice system in Scotland, rather than continue to encounter restricted access to what Lord Gill himself refers to as our Victorian-aged justice system.