Scottish Parliament debated Lord Gill’s Civil Courts Review. Last Thursday's Scottish Parliamentary debate on the Civil Courts Review recommendations made by Scotland's Lord Justice Clerk, Lord Gill has left most onlookers and legal insiders with a worry that many of the reforms proposed in the two year review on Scotland's Civil Justice system, including the implementation of McKenzie Friends & Class Actions, will suffer long delays and in some cases, may almost certainly never be implemented in ways which would help ordinary Scots gain significant improvements in using Scotland's "Victorian" justice system.
Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill spoke of Lord Gill’s criticisms of Scotland’s Civil Justice System. The tone of the debate, opened by Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, began on a 'positive’ note, where high hopes for improvements to Scotland's Civil Justice system were aired by Mr MacAskill, along with the usual compliments for the legal system as it currently stands (in failure). Mr MacAskill said : “Scots law and the Scottish courts have served us well in civil matters for many years but, last Wednesday, the Lord Justice Clerk, Lord Gill, presented me with the "Report of the Scottish Civil Courts Review", which is a hard-hitting report and the first system-wide review in modern times.”
Mr MacAskill went on to say : “In his opening paragraphs Lord Gill pulls no punches. He says: "The basic structure of civil jurisdictions in the Scottish courts remains much as it was in the late nineteenth century".He continues:"changes in the social and economic life of Scotland ... have left us with a structure of civil justice that is seriously failing the nation. Reform is long overdue."
“Those conclusions are unavoidable. Our civil courts now operate in a rights-based, property-owning, consumer-oriented, insurance-reliant society of a sort that would have been unrecognisable a century ago. A reliance on ad hoc reforms has delivered a system of civil justice that is unfit for today's purposes. Lord Gill states: "The practitioners of 100 years ago would have little difficulty in picking up the threads of today's courts. The severe summary is that the structure is "seriously failing the nation."
Scotland’s Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill opens Holyrood debate on Civil Courts Review :
Margo MacDonald MSP asked Kenny MacAskill when justice reforms would begin. Early intervention from independent MSP Margo MacDonald on the question of which areas had been identified by the Justice Secretary for a start, along with comments from the Liberal Democrat Justice Spokesman Robert Brown on points made by Lord Gill that his report ‘was not to be cherry picked and should be dealt with as a whole’, appeared to leave Mr MacAskill grasping for explanations as to what could and could not be done by the current Scottish Government.
Further hints at delays to Lord Gill’s proposals were compounded by questions from Scottish Labour MSP David Whitton, on the subject of McKenzie Friends, which also left Mr MacAskill struggling for an immediate solution to the forty year old McKenzie Friend 'Scottish problem' , the blame of which sits squarely with the Courts and Scotland’s legal establishment.
Strathkelvin and Bearsden MSP David Whitton asked for introduction of McKenzie Friends in Scotland. David Whitton intervened early on in Mr MacAskill’s opening speech, asking asked the Justice Secretary about the issue of McKenzie Friends in Scotland. Mr Whitton said : “Is one of the issues on which the cabinet secretary thinks we can all reach agreement the introduction of the McKenzie friend process?”
Justice Secretary MacAskill replied with a less than immediately hopeful statement : “I am more than happy to consider it. Lord Gill commented on that process, as did those involved in providing support through citizens advice bureaux and others. I am more than happy to meet Mr Whitton or his front-bench colleagues to discuss it because we are genuinely open to ideas. We do not insist on any formula. As I said, if we can agree on changes that are within our control, we will seek to do so. If changes are within the domain of others we will encourage them to act, if that is Parliament's view. Other matters will require to await the outcome of an election and, presumably, the availability of legislative time. The shape of reform will require endorsement and, in some cases, enactment by this Parliament. There will be those in the chamber and beyond with particular interests in the course of reform, whether that involves McKenzie friends or other ideas. They will want to ensure that their interests are protected, be they of the cause or constituency type. That is to be expected and welcomed”
Strathkelvin and Bearsden MSP David Whitton spoke further on the issue of McKenzie Friends for Scotland :
David Whitton MSP said during his speech : “My colleague Cathie Craigie and several other members touched on the need for the introduction of McKenzie friends in Scottish courts. The cabinet secretary knows about my interest in third-party rights of representation. Indeed, only a couple of months ago, the Association of Commercial Attorneys finally earned the right for its members to appear in court, but only after a lengthy process, which at times seemed to involve an obstructive approach from the Scottish legal establishment. It is to be hoped that the recommendation on the introduction of McKenzie friends does not suffer similar delays. That is why I welcome the cabinet secretary's earlier remarks in response to my intervention.”
He continued : “We must make expeditious progress on Lord Gill's enlightened recommendation on McKenzie friends. The first thing that can be done is for the courts to grant McKenzie friend rights with immediate effect. There is no need for legislation from the Parliament, as it is within the powers of the courts to grant those rights. That would demonstrate the intent that things are going to change. The public want that change, Lord Gill has recommended it, the consumer associations support it, and it is an equitable and compassionate remedy for some of the access-to-justice restrictions in Scotland.
Mr Whitton’s references to the Association of Commercial Attorneys application for third party rights of representation refers to a long battle by the ACA’s Chairman, Mr Bill Alexander, seeking rights of audience under Sections 25-29 of the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Scotland Act 1990, which I have reported on previously, here : Association of Commercial Attorneys Rights of Audience in Scotland
The outcome for the ACA was less than fair, due to the fact they were given a heavily restrictive practicing certificate for construction law only, with their application apparently being fought & lobbied against by the legal establishment at every stage. The ACA’s battle to gain rights of audience may also indicate a long struggle ahead on the issue of McKenzie Friends and other access to justice reforms proposed by Lord Gill.
Fergus Ewing caught out on McKenzie Friends issue. While the debate began on a somewhat positive note, the debate certainly ended on a significant stumble by the Communities Safety Minister Fergus Ewing over the question of McKenzie Friends, who indicated in his replies to questions from David Whitton MSP that a quick implementation of even the basic proposals in Lord Gill’s Civil Courts Review such as allowing McKenzie Friends in Scotland’s courts, was not going to be ‘all that quick’ …
Community Safety Minister Fergus Ewing stumbles over McKenzie Friends for Scotland after 40 years of existence in England & Wales.
David Whitton intervened once more on the McKenzie Friends question. During the debate’s closing speech by Community Safety Minister Fergus Ewing, Strathkelvin and Bearsden MSP David Whitton again raised the subject of McKenzie Friends and their sooner rather than later implementation in Scotland. Mr Whitton said : “I bring the minister back to my comments about McKenzie friends. He mentioned that there was wide consultation on their use and varying reports about their effectiveness, but I am sure that he acknowledges that Lord Gill recommends firmly that they should be introduced. Indeed, they already work in jurisdictions south of the border, so I do not understand why we need to delay too long before we implement that recommendation.”
Fergus Ewing replied ‘its not an easy matter to be a McKenzie Friend’. Community Safety Minister Fergus Ewing replied with a less than clear cut answer, leaving many to suspect the battle to implement McKenzie Friends in Scotland is far from over. Mr Ewing said : “David Whitton is right that the recommendation is that McKenzie friends should play a role in Court of Session actions. However, my understanding—my recollection of reading that part of the report—is that there is the caveat that it should be at the discretion of the judge who is handling the case to ensure that McKenzie friends are used appropriately for each case. It is not an easy matter to be a McKenzie friend and, particularly if the case is complex, there could be issues with the appropriateness of using one. I think that Lord Gill also states that, in family actions, it may not always be appropriate for a family member to act as a McKenzie friend because of the potential conflicts of interest.”
By clicking the following You Tube links, you can watch the reaction from Scotland’s political parties and several MSPs to Lord Gill’s recommendations, which for the main offered a broad approval of Lord Gill’s report and hopes that many of the issues raised in the two year appraisal of Scotland’s Civil Justice system can be implemented. The test of course will be whether the Civil Justice reforms proposed in the review will be implemented, and how long implementation will take …
On the whole I would say the debate was positive, albeit there are obvious indicators the implementation of Lord Gill’s recommendations will take time, and will be met with obvious & stiff resistance from the legal establishment. Several solicitors and legal insiders I have spoken to since the debate point to many uncertainties over Lord Gill’s proposals, resistance from the legal establishment over changes that many within its ranks do not want, and the inevitable arm twisting of politicians by the likes of the Law Society of Scotland, who although have welcomed Lord Gill’s report, are actually fuming over many of the proposals to give the public greater access to justice, and the chance to bypass Scotland’s hugely expensive solicitors to do it.
I honestly feel that as far as McKenzie Friends go, there will have to be some kind of legislation to ensure that having a McKenzie Friend is a Human Right, and not something at the whim or discretion of the court. The court has after all, kept out McKenzie Friends from Scotland for some forty years, and both the governing bodies of Scotland’s legal profession – the Law Society of Scotland and the Faculty of Advocates, do not even recognise the fact that McKenzie Friends are treated as Human Rights issue in England & Wales, and in many jurisdictions around the world.
If we are to have certainty over the McKenzie Friends question, and many other recommendations of Lord Gill, I foresee the legislative route must be used to force the courts to ensure access to justice for all, rather than access to justice only for those the court feels should have it.
The legal establishment and the courts, will again no doubt argue that we are special in Scotland, and have a peculiarly special legal services market which may be damaged by some of Lord Gill’s proposals including McKenzie Friends. However, the truth is, we are only special in Scotland because the legal establishment actively denies access to justice to those it does not want to achieve access to justice.