Non-Jury Court Reform
Justice – Safer Communities
Briefing No. 113 March 2005
The Scottish Executive have published their plans
to reform non-jury courts in Scotland in the paper Smarter Justice
– Safer Communities. This briefing summarises the main proposals
with a focus on court administration that will impact on UNISON
members working in the District Courts.
The Scottish Executive claims that the reforms
are designed to reduce crime and the fear of crime, restore public
confidence in the criminal justice services, and rebuild respect
in our society.
Key reforms outlined in the paper include:
- The retention of the 400-year-old system of lay justice combined
with a robust new training and appraisal system.
- The phased unification of Scotland's 49 Sheriff and 58 working
District Courts leading towards both efficiency savings and
a quicker more responsive system.
- Piloting a fine on time community reparation scheme as an
alternative to prosecution.
- Increasing the maximum levels of fiscal fines to £500 - building
flexibility into the system so that the most appropriate intervention
can be delivered for the offender and the offence.
- Increasing the sentencing powers of sheriffs in the summary
court from six months to one year in custody, allowing experienced
judges to deal with more cases in the summary justice system
- which is faster than solemn procedure.
96% of prosecutions in Scotland are dealt with
in non-jury courts – Sheriff and District Courts. The range of
disposals are being extended to provide greater flexibility together
with greater use of alternatives to prosecution.
The administration of Scotland's summary courts
is at present split between thirty of Scotland's thirty-two local
authorities (responsible for district courts) and the Scottish
Court Service (SCS - responsible for all sheriff courts).
The McInnes Committee examined the current structure
on the basis of its core principles of effectiveness, simplicity
and consistency - and identified a number of issues:
- a lack of expertise within some local authorities in court
management which (understandably) was not treated as one of
their primary functions and was not given a high priority as
- varying levels of investment in the estate and in IT developments;
- varying standards of infrastructure and training for justices
and legal assessors and variations in the quality of service
delivered to court users as a result;
- a less than optimal use of the court resource as a whole;
- a lack of a single clear line of judicial and management accountability
for the delivery of summary justice - which could make joint
work more challenging.
As a result of this analysis the Committee unanimously
concluded that the best approach to the future administration
of summary justice would be to unify the administration of summary
criminal courts under the control of SCS.
In the subsequent Scottish Executive consultation
two-thirds of respondents supported unification. Most of those
who opposed unification acknowledged significant variations in
the level of service, but they argued that the existing system
had not been shown to be fundamentally flawed and that inconsistencies
might be addressed by introducing central guidelines and good
practice guides within the existing structure. Some consultees
were opposed to unification as they associated the proposal with
the proposal to abolish lay justice – a recommendation ministers
have decided not to proceed with.
Ministers have reached the conclusion that our
summary courts will work most effectively under a unified summary
courts administration, providing: effective service integration;
consistency of standards; greater simplicity and accountability;
and unitary management of the court estate. They argue that running
courts is not local authorities' core role, and councils should
concentrate on the reduction of anti-social behaviour and of reoffending.
Justice Minister Cathy Jamieson said:
"A single system of administration means that
we can make best use of resources to ensure that courts are available
when cases need to be heard. This process will be introduced sheriffdom
by sheriffdom ensuring a sensible roll-out with consultation with
key stakeholders and staff."
How change will be delivered
The Executive intends to phase in unification
across Scotland over a number of years, on a sheriffdom by sheriffdom
basis. There are a number of reasons given for adopting this approach
rather than imposing 'big bang' change:
- it will allow change to be effectively managed on an area
by area basis - making real progress without overwhelming stakeholders;
- lessons will be learned as the unification project rolls out
- this approach reduces risks of failures in the system and
will allow local innovations and developments to be captured
and used to the benefit of other areas as they unify; and
- appropriate local initiatives and court solutions will be
implemented to fit the needs of individual communities as each
phase of the roll-out proceeds.
The precise timescale for roll-out of unification
(and the order in which areas will unify) will be subject to the
passage of legislation and the views of the main players in the
system. Unification of the first sheriffdom will not take place
until at least the 2007/08 financial year.
This proposal will have staffing implications
for members employed in District Courts. There is a commitment
to further consultation on these issues and there is no expectation
that cash savings will be achieved. A SCS project team who will
also develop a mechanism for consultation at local level on the
arrangements for planning unification in each sheriffdom will
undertake the detailed planning.
The Local Government Service Group will be considering
this issue and branches should consult the members concerned.
Further advice on staffing issues will be issued by the SGE and
UNISON has yet to take a position on the legislation when it is
For further Information:
Paper Summary justice Reform – Next Steps www.scotland.gov.uk/library5/justice/sjrns-00.asp
The McInnes Committee report www.scotland.gov.uk/library5/justice/sjrcrm-00.asp
Summary of consultation responses www.scotland.gov.uk/library5/justice/sjrcscr-00.asp
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