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Non-Jury Court Reform
Smarter 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.

Key Reforms

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.

McInnes Committee

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 a result;
  • 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; and
  • 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.

Court Unification

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.

Branch Action

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 published.

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

Contacts list:

Dave Watson
@P&I Team
14 West Campbell Street
G2 6RX
Tel: 0845 355 0845
Fax: 0141 307 2572



Scottish Executive | Scottish Parliament | Briefings Home



Further Information

Paper Summary justice Reform Next Steps www.scotland.gov.uk/

The McInnes Committee report www.scotland.gov.uk/

Summary of consultation responses www.scotland.gov.uk/


Dave Watson
@P&I Team
14 West Campbell Street
G2 6RX
Tel: 0845 355 0845
Fax: 0141 307 2572