Some people get the glamorous jobs – this week reporters and members of the public will be writing about the “in court” experience in the High Courts of Scotland, in the Appeal Court in Edinburgh, and from Jury Trials across Scotland.
However, I am reporting from the civil court at Hamilton – situated within an office building in a business park, about 500 yards from the main court building. Whereas Hamilton Sheriff Court, proper, is a fine old sandstone building, renovated to a 21st century standard, the civil court does not look, even from inside, too much like a courthouse.
Inside Court “A” however, on this Monday morning, there are people for whom the most important event of their year is taking place – this court is dealing with eviction cases, mainly for rent arrears.
The courtroom itself is modern, but not overly large. There is seating for about 30 people in the public area, and room round the court table for around eight lawyers.
As the clock ticks to 10 am, the Court Officer busies himself by taking the names of the few members of the public who have come to court for their cases. This will allow them to be dealt with first.
This is important as, according to the court list, there are 174 tenancy cases to be dealt with in this courtroom between now and 2.30 pm (allowing for a 1-hour lunch adjournment at 1pm). This is actually a low number of cases – the tenancy court can have as many as 250 cases calling in it some Mondays. Because the local authorities can write in advance to the court asking for continuations of the cases where this in uncontroversial, not all the 174 matters will need to be dealt with individually today, but many will.
The most common names on the court lists belong to the two local authorities, part of whose boundaries fall within the jurisdiction of Hamilton Sheriff Court, being North and South Lanarkshire Councils.
Hamilton is one of the busiest courts in Scotland, covering the major towns of Hamilton, Motherwell, Wishaw and East Kilbride, together with smaller towns and villages across a wide area.
As well as the cases for the Councils, there is a sprinkling of actions raised by Housing Associations. Today there do not seem to be any cases on the lists raised by private landlords.
The lawyers round the table are there exclusively for the Housing Associations and the Councils. Few, if any, tenants engage a private solicitor to act for them. This is because of the perceived difficulties in being granted Legal Aid for these cases, and also because lawyers feel that it is uneconomical for them to act.
Tenancy cases like these are treated as “Summary Cause” cases, meaning that procedure is more straight forward than “Ordinary” procedure, but the fees paid for the work are less too. This is despite the importance of the cases to the tenants. They run the risk of homelessness for them and for their families. However, that importance does not result in lawyers being paid what they see as a proper rate for the job.
There is one person there who is acting for a number of the tenants – the In Court Adviser. His role is to provide assistance to people in connection with cases such as these, and at Hamilton anyway, this extends to representation. The In Court Adviser works hand in hand with the local Citizen’s Advice Bureau, which manages the service.
The Money Advisers and generalist advisers in the CAB will refer cases to the In Court Adviser, as will the local Money Advice centres.
The In Court Adviser’s work for the tenancy court is rather like an iceberg – much of the last couple of days of the previous week is spent on the phone to the local authorities seeing whether they are looking for decrees for eviction in any of the cases where the In Court Adviser has already become involved. If the tenant has reached an agreement to pay, has this been maintained? If the tenant has applied for Housing Benefit, has this been awarded?
The In Court Adviser has been in touch with his clients to tell them if they need to come to court today. He has only needed a couple of clients in, and after they have shown up at his office within the court, he has been able to persuade the Council representatives to give them more time to sort out their problems.
The In Court Adviser sits at the court table, the only person there not wearing a gown.
In the court, thankfully, there are not 174 members of the public in attendance. There are in fact only half a dozen as the clock gets to 10 am.
At that stage the Court Officer, who has already given his list to the Clerk, goes off to get the Sheriff and leads him on to the bench, shouting “Court – all rise” as he does so. Continue reading