Landmark Ruling Throws Scotland's Criminal Justice System Into Chaos

Scotland's criminal justice system was thrown into chaos last night after a landmark ruling that its use of temporary sheriffs breaches European law.

Three senior judges decided the Lord Advocate's power to hire and fire temporary sheriffs at will meant defendants could not be guaranteed a fair trial as guaranteed by Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

With the 129 temporary sheriffs declared invalid in the landmark ruling, the courts now face a daunting shortage of manpower.

And the crisis is set to deepen if, as predicted, the courts are inundated with a stream of appeals against sentences imposed by temporary sheriffs since last May, when the European Convention was incorporated into Scottish law.

The Scottish executive last night announced emergency steps to deal with the massive loss of court personnel including the appointment of ten new permanent sheriffs by January.

Unlike temporary sheriffs, permanent sheriffs can only be fired after an in-depth investigation and the approval of parliament

It is understood that sheriff principals – who normally oversee the system will also step in to deal with cases themselves to clear the backlog,

while existing permanent sheriffs will take on more cases.

Until yesterday's landmark ruling by Lord Cullen, the Lord Justice-Clerk, and Lords Prosser and Reed, temporary sheriffs had presided over thousands of trials every year.

The Crown was given leave to appeal and Justice Minister, Jim Wallace, said the judgment would require 'detailed scrutiny'. In the meantime he said, the availability of temporary sheriffs for new civil or criminal business will be suspended.

When the judgment was delivered yesterday at the Justiciary Appeal court in Edinburgh, Colin Boyd, QC, the Solicitor-General for Scotland, won leave for the Crown to appeal to the Privy Council.

The challenge to temporary sheriffs was started by West Lothian solicitors Jim Keegan and Neil Robertson. They said the judgment was important “not only for Scotland, but for justice throughout Europe.”