Decision to ‘guide’ juries on civil awards shows vested interests have free run of our courts. A RULING in Scotland’s Court of Session by a five judge bench under the retiring Lord President, Lord Hamilton that damages awards made by civil juries to relatives of two people killed in separate accidents ‘were excessive and the claims should be heard again’ will prove to many that vested interests of professions, big business & insurance firms have the ability to skew justice in their favour in Scotland’s courts. The ruling, made earlier this week is seen by some as the thin end of the wedge to ending civil juries in damages awards in Scotland’s courts are over ‘paltry’ sums which not even a Banker would accept as a bonus or a judge would accept as an annual salary or retirement pension..
Previously, civil juries at the court of Session had found negligence on the part of the defenders had caused the deaths, where in the first case, KIRSTY MAY HAMILTON Pursuer and Respondent; against FERGUSON TRANSPORT (SPEAN BRIDGE) LTD Applicant and Defender: jurors awarded Kirsty Hamilton £120,000 after her mother, Caroline (aged 50) died in a road traffic accident when her car was crushed by a lorry near Fort William. Ms Hamilton was 17 at the time of her mother’s death. In the second case, GILBERT DENNIS THOMSON Pursuer and Respondent; against DENNIS THOMSON BUILDERS LTD Applicant and Defender, Dennis Thomson, was awarded £90,000 by a civil jury for the death of his son James, then aged 26, who died in an accident on a building site. Mr Thomson senior was 57 at the time of his son’s death.
However, the five judge bench - Lord Eassie, Lord Clarke, Lord Emslie, Lord Brodie and Lord Hamilton who heard the appeals of the companies previously found to be liable for the cause of the two fatalities, have now decided the compensation claims of the relatives should be heard again, and this time, the jurors should be given “guidance” from the presiding judge in assessing damages, with the judge suggesting a spectrum in which the award might lie.
The implication of the judges decision is that any further awards made in the cases should be much less than originally made by the earlier jury, leading many to conclude that vested interests are controlling the Scottish courts and the public’s access to justice.
In a telling excerpt from the opinion of the court, Lord Hamilton, sounding more like he was more concerned with curtailing publicity & growing enquiries over the disparity of justice where the amount of financial awards made by judges in damages actions without juries are falling well short of awards made in cases where a civil jury has made it’s decision, said : "If greater regard than hitherto is not had by judges to jury awards then the disparity between the judicial and jury awards is likely to remain.” Lord Hamilton went onto claim such a “state of affairs which lacks the consistency which is one of the hallmarks of a mature system"
The now retired Lord President commented that the absence of directions about sums awarded in similar cases by a civil jury, as opposed to that awarded by a judge was a "less than satisfactory aspect of civil jury trials". Lord Hamilton went onto say it was time "to set a framework for civil juries against which they can address levels of damages"which may easily be interpreted as an attempt to deprive a civil jury from making any kind of award which does not sit easily with a judge, or the vested interests of insurers & big business.
Lord Hamilton suggested several ways to address the disparities between awards made by judges & civil juries in Scotland’s Courts, saying : “The objective must now be to seek to narrow that disparity and to eliminate, in so far as practical, that lack of consistency. That can be done by three measures: first, by judges, sitting alone or in the Inner House, having significantly more regard to available jury awards (particularly where they demonstrate a pattern); secondly, by juries being given by the presiding judge fuller guidance than hitherto as to the level of damages which, consistently with other cases, might reasonably be awarded by them; and, thirdly, by appellate courts continuing to intervene, where necessary, on comparative justice grounds as envisaged under statute since 1815. This is a process which will take time and experience to mature.”
In what some may interpret as comments intended to stave off any intervention by the Scottish Parliament (similar to the asbestos damages bill) to remedy what many will perceive as a huge injustice in the cases of the deaths of the two persons, Lord Hamilton wrote in his opinion : “There is no reason to suppose that Parliament intended that awards by juries should have priority over awards by judges - or vice versa. Judicial and jury awards give different but complementary guidance for what is a just award of damages. In an age when life may be thought to be more precious than it may have been thought to be by earlier generations, and where consequentially the loss of the life of a close relative may seem a greater loss than it might have seemed earlier, the input of jury awards, reflective of the views of the community, may, in death cases, be particularly important.”
Lord Hamilton continued : “While awards made by juries without the benefit of judicial guidance may be at greater risk of being arbitrary or of having been influenced by illegitimate factors, those made with that (non-prescriptive) benefit are likely to be a valuable source for assessment in future cases. As to the second element, some suggestions are made below (para ) as to what procedural arrangements might be put in hand. The objective should be to eliminate, or at least reduce, the disparity between judicial and jury awards while at the same time securing that "awards ... in comparable cases ... bear a coherent relationship with each other" (Girvan, per Lord Clyde at page 25). If that objective is achieved, then parties whose disputes over damages are litigated can be better satisfied that they have had a fair trial - whether the adjudicating body is a judge or a jury.”
The size of the awards made by the civil juries in Scottish courts may surprise international readers, particularly those from the United States where awards in similar cases would normally run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, or even millions of dollars. However, Scotland’s justice system has yet to catch up, if ever, with other jurisdictions who allow greater access to justice to victims of injustice, rather than what is seen as the regular influence of vested interests in Scotland’s courts which limits justice, and punishment over the loss of loved ones, to what amounts to little more than a few pennies after legal fees are paid.
As as happened in so many cases before in Scotland’s courts, bankers, politicians and judges can expect bigger bonuses & retirement pensions than any relative can expect via a future award made by a judge or civil jury in a case in a Scottish court.
The full details of the opinion can be read here : CSIH 52 PD2039/09 and PD1444/09 OPINION OF THE LORD PRESIDENT in motions for new trials in causis (1) KIRSTY MAY HAMILTON Pursuer and Respondent; against FERGUSON TRANSPORT (SPEAN BRIDGE) LTD Applicant and Defender and (2) GILBERT DENNIS THOMSON Pursuer and Respondent; against DENNIS THOMSON BUILDERS LTD Applicant and Defender
Of note is the inclusion in the hearing of counsel from the Scottish Government Legal Directorate appearing for Scottish Ministers.
BBC News reported on the case here : Awards in Highland and Shetland accidents 'excessive' judges rule