Scotland’s political parties have been urged to back legal reforms recommended by the Law Society, including widening eligibility for judges and overhauling Fatal Accident Inquiries (FAIs).
The Law Society of Scotland has published more than 40 recommendations ahead of the Holyrood elections in May aimed at improving access to justice, modernising legal services and increasing diversity in the justice system.
It warns that FAI changes in 2016 have failed to “rebuild trust in the system”, because of “significant and repeated” criticism about the long delays grieving families face for answers when a person dies suddenly.
“FAIs should be held without long delays and the death investigation process in Scotland needs to be transparent, effective and robust,” the Law Society of Scotland’s report states.
“This system and scrutiny process must be improved, otherwise public confidence in the system will continue to erode and the opportunity to learn lessons from such deaths reduced or substantially impeded by delay.
Current restrictions on who can be made a judge in Scotland “disproportionately disadvantage solicitors and in particular female solicitors”, the professional legal body states.
Experienced tribunal judges are prevented by existing legislation from being considered for appointment as Senators of the Court of Session – the country’s highest civil court.
Tribunal judges account for a “significantly higher proportion of women”, according to the Law Society of Scotland, and is more diverse than other court-based judiciaries.
Recommending changing the criteria for judicial appointments, the report states: “Compounding the issue, experienced tribunal or first-tier judges in Scotland are eligible to apply for similar roles in England and Wales, creating a real risk of talented individuals transferring their skills to other jurisdictions.”
It also suggests appointments should “focus more on competencies than on specific and inflexible career experience requirements, including a new ‘reflection of society’ criteria where the ability of a candidate to contribute to a diverse judiciary is taken into account”.
The suggestions for law reform also includes a section on Scotland’s legal and constitutional future.
Although it is neutral on the issues of Brexit and Scottish independence, if another referendum is proposed on the latter, the Law Society urges both sides to ensure “the greatest possible clarity the expected impact of a vote either way” would have.
It adds: “This must by necessity involve the greatest possible engagement with citizens, business and civic society at all levels.
“Voters should be enabled to make the most informed decisions possible and to plan in advance for the impact of either result.”
Amanda Millar, president of the Law Society of Scotland, said: “This year’s election will be held against a background of extraordinary change. Covid-19 and Brexit create immediate challenges which demand immediate focus, but by bringing forward our priorities in the next Parliament, Scotland can emerge as a more vibrant, inclusive and dynamic nation.
“We have worked extensively to drive progress in protecting and enhancing access to justice, but reforming legal aid must now be taken forward with urgency.
“It is also vital that we move forward with legislation to deliver a modern system of regulation for the legal profession to benefit consumers, the legal profession and the public interest.”
She added: “Our public policy priorities include reform of fatal accident inquiries, vital to rebuild public faith in the system.
“Underpinning all our priorities is respect for the rule of law, a vital and fundamental feature of our democracy.
“With our constitutional future subject to debate, this respect will be critical.
“I urge all those seeking public office to commit not just to comply with, but to champion the rule of law and respect for democracy.”