HC Deb 02 May 1985 vol 78 cc502-4

  1. '(1) The Sheriff Courts (Scotland) Act 1971 shall be amended in accordance with the following provisions of this section:
  2. (2) In section 33(1) of that Act (Sheriff Court Rules Council):
    1. (a) the words "one person appointed by the Secretary of State, being a person", shall be omitted, and the words "two persons appointed by the Secretary of State, being persons", shall be substituted therefore; and
    2. (b) the words, "provided that at least one of the two persons appointed by the Secretary of State shall not be engaged in professional practice of the law in Scotland nor shall he be employed in the administration of justice in Scotland'', shall be added at the end of the subsection.'.—[Mr. Wallace.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Wallace

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

A degree of urgency seems to be creeping into the proceedings. The purpose of the new clause is to amend the composition of the Sheriff Court Rules Council. That council's statutory functions are set out in section 34 of the Sheriff Courts (Scotland) Act 1971. The council shall review generally the procedure and practice followed in civil proceedings in the sheriff court". The council shall prepare and submit draft rules to the Court of Session. Thereafter, the Court of Session, by means of an act of sederunt, embodies those rules and they become the rules of the sheriff court.

The new clause has the support of the Scottish Consumer Council. This measure was one of the specific recommendations made by the council in response to the consultation paper issued on behalf of the Lord Advocate by the Scottish courts administration dealing with small claims. The small claims provisions in the Bill are contained in clause 18. We shall deal with some amendments to that clause probably sooner rather than later.

The theme behind the setting up of a small claims court in Scotland is that there should be more accessibility to the public. The purpose of the new clause is to introduce lay representation to the Sheriff Court Rules Council. The council comprises two sheriffs principal, three sheriffs, one member of the Faculty of Advocates, five solicitors and two persons, each of whom is a full-time sheriff's clerk. They are appointed by the Lord President of the Court of Session. One further person is appointed by the Secretary of State for Scotland and his qualifications are set down in section 33 of the 1971 Act. He is a person with qualifications suitable for such appointment". My understanding, on reading the "Parliament House Book", is that the gentleman who currently occupies that post is from the Scottish court administration. All members of the Sheriff Court Rules Council are involved in professional practice or in the administration of justice.

It is healthy for such a body to include outside lay representation. One of the most immediate functions of the legislation—assuming that it is not amended out of recognition by the other place—is to set up rules for a small claims court. I accept that the council presently consults outside interests, in particular consumer interests, at present when its draft rules are prepared.

We are dealing with access to the courts. That is not of interest solely to the professionals. It is of considerable interest to members of the public who are involved in the day-to-day running of the courts because they are pursuers or defenders. There has been lay representation on the Cowie committee which dealt with simpler divorce forms and the Dunpark working party which produced interesting proposals, some of which have been accepted, for the improvement of administrative justice in Scotland.

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Ordered, That, at this day's sitting, the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Bill may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour.—[Mr. Archie Hamilton.]

Question again proposed, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Wallace

I am sure that, from the list of the great and the good which is kept in the Secretary of State's office, he would find at least one person representing lay interests who could make a worthwhile contribution and represent the general public who wish to have better access to the courts.

The Solicitor-General for Scotland

I have listened to the arguments of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) on previous occasions. I have previously said that the Government considered that the Sheriff Court Rules Council already had sufficient powers to enable it to consult whenever and whomsoever it wished. It is fair to say that that remains our view. The rules council has in the past shown itself willing to consult and to take the views of outside interested bodies where the subject matter of the proposed rules has shown that to be desirable. Such bodies as mentioned by the hon. Gentleman—the Scottish Consumer Council and the Scottish Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux—have made helpful and constructive contributions. They have welcomed the opportunity to be consulted. I think of their assistance in preparing forms for use once divorce moved to the sheriff's court.

It is not every subject for which court rules are required which necessarily lends itself to comprehension by a lay member, and on that basis my interest has always been that the appointment of a lay or non-legal member to the council will not always be to the benefit of the council, of the draft rules which it may be considering or of the general public. As the hon. Gentleman said, the council is already large. For those reasons, I conclude that the existing arrangements have worked satisfactorily.

Given the powers that the council has to consult and its readiness to do so, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be prepared to withdraw his new clause.

Mr. Wallace

It is clear that the Government will not move on that. An increase of one would not make a great difference. There is a view that being in at the start is slightly better than being consulted. I recognise that there has been widespread consultation. I shall not press the clause to a Division. I beg to ask to leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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