As this month's Journal goes to press, the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government for the next 12 months has just been published. While the attention of most commentators has focused on the bigger spending projects and whether public services are performing as well as the First Minister claims, the document is a comprehensive one with some detail on matters of particular interest to the profession.
In particular we can gauge the progress of reform on matters beyond what appears in the list of planned bills, which in itself is not a very exciting mix. Family law actions, especially child cases, will see new legislation, but otherwise we by and large have to content ourselves with the bills introduced in the past year that are still in progress. Admittedly there are several of these, including Age of Criminal Responsibility, Damages, Human Tissue (i.e. organ donation), Planning, Prescription and Vulnerable Witnesses. But perhaps we should ask why so many have had to be held over (13 in total).
Peering a little further up the pipeline, here some items are being carried along more quickly than others. On defamation, there appears to be an agenda for action in light of the Scottish Law Commission’s report. Civil partnerships need a further look, following the Supreme Court’s pronouncement regarding opposite sex couples and discrimination (ministers were previously against extending the law to them). Both, however, remain at the further consultation stage. On the criminal side, victims and witnesses (including those of domestic abuse) continue to feature; and once their safeguards are in place, the presumption against short prison sentences will be extended from three months to 12.
But “We will also consult on a fresh approach to the reform of succession law”, is all the paper can promise on a subject discussed at considerable length over the last 25 years and more. And unfortunately there is little sense of urgency on legal aid. We can finally expect a response to the report of the independent review, which has been published these past seven months – and which, even though it failed to see the case for an immediate fee increase, did call for a further independent review focusing on fees, with timetable and process to be agreed before the end of this year. If that is to happen, more impetus needs to be shown than has so far been evident.
The report of Esther Roberton’s review of legal services regulation should also be imminent. As to that, however, ministers will be content to set out “how we intend to respond to those recommendations”. What about an actual response? It looks like we will have to live with the present legislation for some years yet.