Friday 16 July 2010

Priced out of justice?

The Herald has reported on the GLC case of Walls v. Santander UK plc, where Sheriff Cubie granted the defender's application for a bank charges claim to be remitted from small claims to ordinary cause procedure.

The effect of leaving the small claims system in Scotland, and indeed the UK, is that consumers lose the 'fixed limit' protection against an award of expenses in the event of failure. For example, you can sue for £3,000 and if unsuccessful your opponent would only recover £300 under small claims procedure in Scotland. However, expenses can quickly mount up in the ordinary court and as banks are using counsel to conduct their defences, litigation in the ordinary court will expose consumers to potential levels of expenses many times the value of their claim. 

For those on a low income civil legal aid may be available and GLC is in the process of applying for legal aid in some bank charges litigation which is proceeding under ordinary cause procedure. For those of modest means eligible for legal aid there will be a contribution to pay which may exceed the value of the dispute, making the dispute pointless. While for those ineligible for legal aid it may be equally impossible to proceed.

The Herald has called for greater competition in Scotland's banking sector, and we agree that is much needed in the consumer interest. However, the case of Walls illustrates a major flaw at the heart of Scotland's civil justice system. What's the point in having an accessible simplified tier of civil justice for low level claims if any powerful opponent can come along, up the ante, and 'price' you out of justice?  There is no right to appeal or review a decision to remit under the Sheriff Courts (Scotland) Act 1971.

Access to justice requires citizens to be able to access the courts at a cost proportionate to the value of their monetary claim. The small claims system help fulfils our state's article 6(1) requirement under the European Convention on Human Rights. But there is now a 'class of litigants' who are priced out of justice. GLC believes there is an obvious solution. The small claims fixed limit on expenses should 'travel' with the case.   This would ensure that the costs of resolving the dispute remained proportionate and fair having regard to the monetary value of the dispute.  This could be achieved by a minor statutory amendment.

GLC has made this law reform call in today's The Herald.  Unfortunately, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice in Scotland appears to have rejected our call without understanding the current legal position.  Kenny MacAskill said: "People are still able to raise bank charge cases in the small-claims court – this ruling does nothing to stop that".  Yes, but this ruling makes it crystal clear that all bank charge claims are susceptible to be removed from the small claims court.  This has already happened in other cases; in Walls we tried to stop it, and were unable to do so.  Unless the Scottish Government acts, many citizens in Scotland will be priced out of justice.

We are reminded of the parable from The Trial: “Before the Law stands a doorkeeper. . . . The doorkeeper sees that the man is nearing his end, and in order to reach his failing hearing, he roars to him: ‘No one else could gain admittance here, because this entrance was meant solely for you. I’m going to go and shut it now.’”


1 comment:

  1. Why am I shocked? This is a dirty stain on the UK's justice system. I feel the system has been exposed from the moment the ruling was made against the OFT.

    The banks have just put the final nail in to the consumer's coffin. I would say, overall, the banks were challenged, and have just battered all challenger's aside.

    From the industries which were supposed to regulate them in the first place to the justice system, the banks have shown how powerful they really are. They are above the law.