4. Recent trends in civil justice
There were 76,769 civil law cases initiated in 2014-15, a similar number to the previous two years
Sheriff courts accounted for 93 per cent of civil law cases and 38 per cent of cases in sheriff court were small claims
Survey data shows civil law problems were experienced by around one in five of the adult population
Most civil legal aid grants are made for cases related to family issues
Scottish Crime and Justice Survey: civil justice module
The Scottish Crime and Justice Survey (SCJS) includes questions on experience of and response to civil law problems. Respondents were asked about civil problems which may raise a legal issue or which, if not resolved earlier, could ultimately result in legal proceedings, for example, welfare rights, debt, housing, employment, divorce or separation and consumer issues. Respondents were asked if, over the previous three years prior to interview, they had experienced any of a listof named problems or disputes. They were then asked whether they attempted to solve them, if they used help or advice in that process and if so from whom.
The problem areas covered were:
- home, family or living arrangements
- money, finances or anything paid for
- unfair treatment
- health and well-being
The 2014-15 SCJS shows that around one in five (21 per cent) adults had experienced at least one of the civil law problems asked about in the last three years compared to 2008-09 (30 per cent). The nine percentage point decrease from 2008-09 to 2014-15 represents a statistically significant decrease in adults experiencing at least one of the civil law problems asked.
Within the problem areas listed above, 14 per cent of adults had experienced problems with home, family or living arrangements, 7 per cent had experienced problems with money, finances or anything they had paid for, 4 per cent had been treated unfairly in some respect and 4 per cent had experienced health or well-being problems.
The most common single problem was with neighbours, experienced by nine per cent. The next most common civil law problems involved money & debt (three per cent) and faulty goods or services (three per cent) (Figure 3).
Over a third (34 per cent) of all respondents with one or more civil law problem in the last three years said a problem concerning neighbours was the most important or only problem to solve. This was followed by 8 per cent of problems involving money and debt and 8 per cent involving faulty goods or services.
Of those who identified the most important or only problem, 30 per cent reported the problem began less than 12 months ago, 16 per cent reported the problem began over a year but less than two years ago and 34 per cent reported the problem began over three years ago. Twenty per cent of respondents did not know when the issue started.
Those who had experienced a problem were also asked about the current situation of their most important problem. Around half (49 per cent) had resolved the problem whilst just under a third (32 per cent) were still trying to resolve the problem. Around one in ten had tried to resolve the problem but had to give up (9 per cent) or were not planning to do anything (9 per cent). Of those not planning to do anything, 54 per cent felt it was not worth the effort and 23 per cent didn't think anything could be done.
For those who had resolved their problem, 20 per cent said it had taken less than a month, while 28 per cent had taken between one and six months.
Where respondents had identified the most important or only problem, 21 per cent planned to contact either a Citizens Advice Bureau (or similar advice organisation) and 19 per cent a solicitor or lawyer. Of those who had not either contacted or planned to contact a Citizens Advice Bureau (or similar advice organisation), over a third (36 per cent) felt able to deal with the problem without their help and a quarter (25 per cent) didn't think they could do anything to help. Fourteen per cent didn't know these organisations dealt with the sort of problem they had experienced.
Those who had not either contacted or planned to contact a solicitor or lawyer gave similar responses: a third (33 per cent) felt able to deal with the problem without their help and 14 per cent didn't think they could do anything to help. In addition, 17 per cent didn't think the problem was serious enough to involve a solicitor or lawyer and 16 per cent were worried about the cost or didn't want to pay the cost.
Of all respondents who identified the most important or only problem, 38 per cent sought information, advice or help from sources other than friends or family, Citizens Advice Bureau (or similar advice organisation), or solicitor or lawyer. These sources of help are shown in Figure 4.
Respondents who sought help from a Citizens Advice Bureau (or similar organisation) received advice (57 per cent), information (56 per cent) or had the organisation contact the other party on their behalf (25 per cent). Those who sought help from a solicitor or lawyer received advice (59 per cent), had them contact the other party on their behalf (47 per cent) or received information (33 per cent) whilst less than a quarter (23 per cent) received help with threatened legal action and 22 per cent received representation in court or in a tribunal.
Various vulnerable groups were more likely to experience civil law problems than the general population. For example, those who lived in areas of multiple deprivation suffered a higher prevalence of civil justice problems (32 per cent) than the rest (19 per cent), as did victims of crime (35 per cent) compared to non-victims (19 per cent). Those who lived in rented (as opposed to owner occupied) accommodation were also more likely to have experienced civil law problems: 31 per cent for social rent and 23 per cent for private rent as opposed to 18 per cent for owner occupied.
There were 76,769 civil law cases initiated across the Court of Session and sheriff courts in 2014-15 (not including summary applications). The number of cases initiated is at its lowest since this series of statistics began. This represents a decrease of 42 per cent since 2008-09. However, the number of cases initiated in 2014-15 was similar to the previous two years, halting the downward trend observed over the years prior to that. (Figure 5 and Table 1).
There were 70,587 disposals of civil law cases in 2014-15. This is similar to the number of cases disposed in 2013-14 but 39 per cent lower than 2008-09, so the trend in disposals is similar to initiations.
The year on year change in case numbers was not consistent across courts, sheriffdoms and case types. The number of cases initiated in the Court of Session increased by 13 per cent, while cases in the sheriff courts decreased by one per cent. There was also variation within sheriffdoms, as some handled fewer cases and others more, compared to the previous year. The case mix has also changed with an increase in personal injury and eviction cases but a drop in family, debt and repossession cases.
Debt makes-up the highest proportion of cases handled by the courts in Scotland, representing 44 per cent of all the civil law cases. Eviction and family make up the next biggest categories followed by personal injury, repossession and damages respectively (Figure 6).
There were 5,164 cases initiated across the General Department, Petition Department and Inner House of the Court of Session and 4,782 cases disposed. The number of cases initiated in the Court of Session in 2014-15 represents a 13 per cent rise compared to 2013-14 but this is still lower than the peak of 6,102 cases initiated in 2009-10 (Table 2).
For the period of these statistics, actions with a value over £5,000 could be raised in either the Court of Session or the sheriff courts and lower value actions could be raised only in the sheriff courts. However this value limit was raised to £100,000 on 22 September 2015 following implementation of the Courts Reform (Scotland) Act 2014. The Courts Reform Act also allowed for the creation of a Sheriff Personal Injury Court with specialist personal injury sheriffs. Together these measures are expected to change the make-up of case types in the Court of Session. For example, personal injury cases currently make-up 79 per cent of civil law cases initiated in the General Department of the Court of Session (Figure 7). However, it is expected that the majority of personal injury cases that would have previously been raised in the Court of Session will instead be raised in the All Scotland Sheriff Personal Injury Court based in Edinburgh, although they may also be raised in local sheriff courts.
The Court of Session also deals with judicial review. This is a specialised type of court procedure that can be used in Scotland to challenge the way a person or body with power or authority has made a decision. There were 399 judicial review cases initiated in 2014-15. This is a rise of 30 per cent compared to the previous year, although the number of judicial reviews tends to fluctuate from year to year. Court actions for judicial review cover a range of different matters including planning permission and environmental cases. However, the majority of judicial review cases relate to immigration (Table 23).
In 2014-15 there were 71,605 civil law cases initiated and 65,805 cases disposed in the sheriff courts. While the number of cases initiated and disposed was similar to the previous year, this represents a fall of 43 and 41 per cent respectively since 2008-09. Cases initiated using the small claim procedure have decreased by 42 per cent since 2008-09 and now make up 38 per cent of cases initiated in the sheriff courts (Table 3).
All sheriffdoms in Scotland have seen an overall drop in the number of cases initiated and disposed since 2008-09. Between 2013-14 and 2014-15, Glasgow and Strathkelvin saw the biggest decrease of 14 per cent in initiated cases. This is in contrast to small rises, year on year, in cases initiated in the Tayside, Central and Fife sheriffdom, South Strathclyde, Dumfries and Galloway and a larger 11 per cent rise in Lothian and Borders. During the latest period, the Tayside, Central and Fife sheriffdom recorded the highest number of cases (Table 4).
The mid-2014 population estimates were used to create population estimates for each sheriffdom (Supplementary Table S13). These estimates were then used to calculate the number of cases initiated and disposed per 1,000 population. This allows direct comparison of the incidence of civil law cases in each sheriffdom. The overall number of cases initiated across Scotland is 13 for every 1,000 people - and this rate is similar for all sheriffdoms.
There was a large variation in the number of civil law cases dealt with by sheriff courts in Scotland in 2014-15. The number of cases handled by Glasgow sheriff court dropped compared to the previous year but it still had by far the largest number of cases (11,517 cases initiated) followed by Edinburgh (8,838 cases initiated). Some courts in more rural parts of Scotland dealt with fewer than 100 cases (Supplementary Table S1). A map showing the location of sheriff courts in Scotland, together with information on recent court closures, is shown in Figure 19
In addition to civil law cases concerned with disputes, sheriff courts also deal with commissary business which relates to succession and access to a deceased person's estate. In 2014-15, 21,948 ordinary estates were confirmed with an average value of £241,000. There were also 2,297 small estates confirmed, with an average value of £23,200 (Supplementary Table S6).
Civil law legal aid
The Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) administers legal aid which is paid for out of public funds and helps towards the costs of legal advice and representation for those who qualify. It is designed to help individuals who would be unable to pay for it on their own to gain access to the legal system. In 2014-15, civil legal assistance made up around a third of the net total legal assistance expenditure.
There are two main types of civil legal assistance: advice and assistance (including assistance by way of representation) and civil legal aid. Advice and assistance helps pay for advice from a solicitor on any matter of Scots law. Civil legal aid helps pay for a solicitor to take the case to court. Civil legal aid makes up around 16 per cent of the grants of civil legal assistance. However, civil legal aid cases cost more than other types of civil legal assistance, so the net expenditure on civil legal aid makes up more than half of the total expenditure on civil legal assistance. Demand for and expenditure on civil legal aid has dropped in recent years. Figure 8 shows demand (as indicated by applications) peaked in 2009-10 following rises in the previous two years.
In 2014-15, there were 12,977 civil legal aid grants, the vast majority of which were for cases in the sheriff courts. In contrast to recent years, legal aid grants in relation to intervention orders and guardianship orders under Part 6 of the Adults with Incapacity (Scotland) Act 2000 represented the largest category of legal aid certificates issued, at 28% of all grants. The next largest area is contact/parentage, which accounted for 23% of all grants in 2014-15.
SLAB manages three grant funded programmes which includes 108 different projects across Scotland to enable support for people affected by repossession, eviction, debt problems and benefits disputes. In 2014-15 these programmes enabled 26,888 people to access help, including representation at court or a tribunal for 3,607 people.
Further information and data on legal aid is available from the Scottish Legal Aid Board Annual Report 2014-15.
1. Applications and grants may not relate to the same cases because of the interval between an application and a decision to grant. Also note that granted cases may not always proceed.
Email: Eddie Chan