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"Law of the jungle" warning for district courts

11 May 2006

Training and support for justices of the peace by legally qualified clerks prevent  the district court descending to the "law of the jungle", the Justice 1 Committee was told yesterday.

The Scottish Parliament committee was hearing evidence on the Executive's Criminal Proceedings etc (Reform) Bill, which in addition to reforming summary criminal procedure, would transfer responsibility for the district courts from local authorities to the Scottish Court Service.

Speaking to MSPs, Nicola Brown, representing Scotland's district court clerks, said the clerks must keep their role as trainers, assessors and legal advisers to the lay justices judges who preside over cases.

She said that under the bill, clerks would lose their training role as it was seen as affecting judicial independence. However this would mean a drop in standards for many JPs.

"Abominable" standard

Ms Brown also claimed that recruiting the best clerks was essential to ensure consistent standards. The current standard of pleading in district courts, by both prosecutors and defence lawyers, was "abominable" as the courts were used as a training ground for lawyers, and clerks increasingly had to rectify misleading submissions.

The "law of the jungle" assessment was challenged by the District Court Association training committee's chairman Graham Coe JP, though he supported a continuing place for clerks in a training capacity. Mr Coe said he did not think JPs were completely useless on their own, but training and support could vary from area to area depending on how much priority it was given by the authority.

Cliff Binning, Head of Operations and Policy at the Scottish Court Service, said the Service was determined to build on the best models in operation as the courts were brought under the same administration as the sheriff courts.