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Tribunal reform up for discussion

21 June 2010

Reform of the tribunal system in Scotland is on the agenda with the publication of a discussion paper by the Scottish Committee of the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council.

The Scottish Committee, which supervises the operation of over 50 different tribunals dealing with issues as diverse as children’s hearings, employment, immigration, tax and social security benefits, is putting forward a range of options for the modernisation of the system, which handles over 50,000 cases a year.

The paper suggests that a number of core principles should be established. These are:

  • the distinctiveness of the Scottish legal system should be recognised and protected, in creating a more cohesive structure for tribunals in Scotland;
  • changes should be made to the location of responsibility for the policy underpinning tribunals and their appointment processes to ensure independence;
  • remaining administrative and/or sponsorship links to Scottish Government Directorates should be severed;
  • the arrangements by which local authority tribunals are established and operated should be reconsidered;
  • whether "hybrid" bodies should be part of a coherent tribunals system, or whether their tribunal functions should be separated from their administrative decision making functions, should be agreed;
  • the differences between tribunals and the ordinary civil courts should be acknowledged and safeguarded;
  • all members of tribunals should be appropriately remunerated;
  • a decision needs to be taken on whether party and party tribunals should be incorporated into a Scottish tribunals system or whether they should be absorbed into the Scottish courts system;
  • all decisions made by public bodies affecting the rights of individuals should be subject to a right of appeal to a court or tribunal;
  • routes of appeal should be rationalised.

The Scottish Government has indicated that it will establish a unified tribunals administration. The Scottish Committee welcomes this, but believes that more may be required to create a system that is coherent, independent and user friendly.

It stated: "The tribunals landscape in Scotland is complicated by the fact that many tribunals deal with reserved matters, which are the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice and the UK Tribunals Service. The Ministry of Justice announced in March that it plans to merge the Tribunals Service with HM Courts Service. We do not believe it is appropriate for tribunals operating in Scotland to be part of HM Courts Service. They should instead become part of a coherent tribunals system in Scotland."

The committee suggests a number of possible models :

  • Model A: a unified administrative support service for all devolved and reserved tribunals;
  • Model B: bringing together all devolved and reserved tribunals operating in Scotland into a unified administration, under a judicial head that parallels the reserved UK tribunals;
  • Model C: bringing together all devolved tribunals into a unified administration, under a collegiate structure led by a Tribunals Board or committee for devolved tribunals, with the retention of reserved tribunals within the existing UK Tribunals Service structure;
  • Model D: Bringing together all tribunals in Scotland into a unified administration under a collegiate structure led by a Tribunals Board or committee for both devolved and reserved tribunals;
  • Model E: Merger of all devolved and reserved tribunals operating in Scotland with the Scottish courts. This model could involve merger only of the administration, or of both the administration and the structure of tribunals in Scotland with the administration of the Scottish courts.

Richard Henderson, chair of the Scottish Committee, said: “Tribunals are an intrinsic part of the justice system, offering a much more user friendly, quick and affordable method of resolving disputes than the civil courts. But the system is fragmented because of the unco-ordinated way in which tribunals have evolved, each operating separately and with no overarching governance framework. Scotland needs a tribunal system that is coherent, properly independent and user friendly. The discussion paper we are launching today sets out a number of possible models for the creation of such a system.”

The paper will be available on the Scottish Committee's website

The committee is holding a conference in Edinburgh tomorrow (22 June) to generate discussion on the paper. Anyone with experience of working with tribunals, including representatives of tribunal users, is encouraged to submit their views on the discussion questions by the deadline of 22 September 2010. A report will be submitted to the Scottish Government at the end of the year.

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