The Scottish Government published its latest round of civil justice statistics at the end of August 2018.
The statistics are for the financial year 2016-2017 and summarise recent trends in civil law cases in Scotland. They cover issues such as debt, divorce, eviction, property repossession and damages for personal injury.
The total number of civil cases continues to fall
The headline trend is that the total number of civil cases brought in Scotland continues to fall. As outlined in the graph below, 73,640 civil law cases were initiated (i.e. registered) in the Scottish courts (Court of Session and the sheriff courts) in 2016–17. This is a drop of 5% from the previous year and a 44% decrease since 2008–09.
This general trend is also reflected in the number of civil cases “disposed of” (i.e. actually completed following a final judgment). There were 66,895 disposals of civil law cases in 2016-17 – 6% lower than in 2015-16 and 42% lower than in 2008-09.
The change in court case numbers is not consistent across the courts. The Court of Session (the highest civil court in Scotland) saw the greatest reduction in cases (see the section below on the courts reform process).
The statistics summarised in the graph above also highlight more specific trends. These are discussed below.
Debt doesn’t just include personal debt. It is defined to cover any case where one party wishes to enforce their right to payment. Twelve per cent fewer debt cases were initiated in 2016-17 than in 2015-16; and 54% fewer than in 2008-09.
The total number of divorces granted in Scotland in 2016-17 was 7,938, 11% less than in 2015-16. This is part of a general downward trend which seems to be partly due to fewer people getting married (see para 58 of the Scottish Legal Aid Board’s (SLAB) report on monitoring the availability of legal services).
The dotted line is to indicate that data prior to 2008-09 cannot be compared directly with later data due to problems with the quality of the pre 2008-09 statistics.
Personal injury cases are damages actions linked to someone’s death or injury. There were 8,378 personal injury cases initiated in 2016-17, 4% fewer than in 2015-16. The number of personal injury cases has fluctuated since 2008-09 (see graph below).
Eviction and repossession cases
Eviction cases involve landlords going to court when they want their tenants removed from their property. In 2016-17, 14,304 eviction cases were initiated in the social housing and private sectors. This represents a 3% drop on the 2015-16 figures, and is 28% lower than in 2008-09 (see graph below).
Since December 2017, private rented housing eviction cases are dealt with by a separate tribunal – the Housing and Property Chamber of the First-tier Tribunal for Scotland. In future, statistics for the private rented sector will be reported by the tribunal.
Repossession cases involve lenders retaking property when a borrower breaches mortgage conditions. There were 1,753 repossession cases initiated in 2016-17: a 6% decrease compared to 2015-16 and 83% lower than the number initiated in 2008-09.
The granting of an eviction or repossession order does not necessarily mean that someone has to leave their home. In both cases, the landlord/lender will have to follow further legal steps to recover the property.
Scottish Crime and Justice Survey – civil law problems
The statistics also refer to information from the Scottish Crime and Justice Survey (SCJS). As well as asking people about their experiences of crime, this survey looks at certain civil law problems.
The 2016-17 SCJS shows that around three in ten adults (29%) had experience of at least one of the civil law problems referred to. The most common problem was with neighbours, experienced by 14% of adults. This was followed by faulty goods or services, and money and debt (both 4%).
Impact of courts reform process
The Courts Reform (Scotland) Act 2014 brought about major changes to the Scottish civil justice system. These included the setting up of a new Scottish personal injury court in 2015 and increasing the threshold for bringing a case to the Court of Session from £5,000 to £100,000. One of the aims was to move low-value cases to the sheriff courts and the new personal injury court.
The civil justice statistics suggest that the legislation may have had the desired impact. In comparison to the year before, the number of Court of Session cases almost halved (sheriff court cases only dropped by 5%), with personal injury cases in the Court of Session dropping by almost 75%. Just over 35% of personal injury cases were raised in the new personal injury court (see section 5 of the report).
Gaps in the statistics
The statistics provide a useful overview of some of the high-level trends in the field of civil law. They don’t, however, provide the full picture.
First, although the statistics do include some commentary on the reason for certain trends (e.g. changes in legislation), their focus is on the number of civil cases. This can make it difficult to establish why certain trends are occurring.
For example, there are several possible explanations for the overall downward trend in civil cases. It could be the result of a reduction in the total number of disputes and/or disputes being successfully dealt with outside the courts. Or it could mean that people are having difficulty accessing the justice system. However, although some additional information can be found in places like the SLAB report on monitoring the availability of legal services, the numbers themselves don’t assist in figuring out which explanation is correct.
Second, the statistics don’t deal with other factors which can be relevant when examining the workings of the civil courts, e.g. information on costs, court fees, waiting times for getting a judgment, number of successful and unsuccessful cases etc. Further information on these factors would be useful.
Third, figures for tribunals are not included. Readers are instead referred to tribunals’ annual reports. However, these often do not deal with statistics in any depth. For example, the housing statistics in the recent President of Tribunals’ Annual Report are mainly limited to case volumes.
Finally, the statistics only relate to what is known as the “principal crave” – i.e. the first legal remedy requested in the court writ. As many cases will have more than one crave, the statistics do not necessarily reflect all of the legal issues in a case. The Scottish Government is currently investigating the feasibility of also publishing statistics on ancillary craves.
Angus Evans, Senior Researcher, Civil Justice.