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Thursday, November 11, 1999 Published at 06:33 GMT

UK: Scotland

Chaos warning over temporary sheriffs ruling

People convicted by temporary sheriffs may appeal

A ruling to end the use of temporary sheriffs in Scotland's courts is sending shockwaves through the legal profession.

In the first judgement in Britain under the European Convention of Human Rights, three judges have ruled that people appearing before temporary sheriffs could not be guaranteed an independent and impartial tribunal.

[ image: The Law Society fears a shortage of sheriffs]
The Law Society fears a shortage of sheriffs
Lawyers say the move will cause chaos in an already overburdened court system and could lead to hundreds of appeals by convicted criminals.

In an emergency statement to the Scottish Parliament, the Justice Minister Jim Wallace told members the news.

He delivered a "do not panic" warning and said all would be done to make sure there was minimal disruption.

Nevertheless, the Scottish National Party expressed concern that the ruling could have wide implications for the justice system and the Conservatives questioned whether convictions in the last six months are unsound.

Jim Wallace: "Everything is being done to prevent any disruption"
Mr Wallace told BBC Scotland's Newsdrive programme: "Knowing that this case was before the courts the Scottish Executive had already taken measures to make sure there was little disruption to the system."

The ruling on Thursday follows the Appeal Court's decision that a temporary sheriff - who was due to preside over the case of two West Lothian men accused of assault and breach of the peace - was not independent as required by the European Convention of Human Rights.

The judges said that the two men were entitled to a new trial by a permanent sheriff.

The BBC's legal affairs correposndent Joshua Rozenberg: "The courts were prepared for this decision"
The men's defence lawyers had argued that the temporary sheriff could not be impartial as he was appointed by Scotland's chief prosecutor the Lord Advocate.

The case has potentially very serious ramifications for Scotland's legal system.

As many as 130 temporary sheriffs are currently used in Scotland to plug gaps in the system.

Caseload fears

The Law Society fears that the court system will not be able to cope with the caseload in the short term.

Leading lawyers also say that, people convicted by temporary sheriffs will be able to appeal against their conviction.

Since May this year, Scottish law has been subject to the European Convention of Human Rights

That guarantees an accused person's right to a fair trial before an independent tribunal.

Independence questioned

In the case heard by the Appeal Court in Edinburgh, it was claimed temporary sheriffs are not independent because they depend for their appointment on the Lord Advocate.

Isabel Fraser: "Ten permanent sheriffs are being sought but 40 is a more realistic number"
An advertisement has already been placed by the Lord Advocate looking for 10 new full-time sheriffs.

The Law Society said it fears there will not be enough sheriffs to hear cases in the short term.

Spokesman Gerry Brown said: "My worry is that witnesses, child witnesses, vulnerable witnesses, don't have cases dealt with quickly enough.

"Nor do accused persons have cases dealt with summarily, so we have to keep an eye on this make sure it does not fall because of these problems."

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