Action should be taken against barriers to bringing public interest court cases in Scotland, a report from a number of campaign groups claims today.

The report, Discussion paper: Overcoming Barriers to Public Interest Litigation in Scotland, explores why there is a lack of strategic court action in Scotland and makes recommendations to address this.

Key barriers, it suggests, are poor access to information about court cases; limitations on who can take a case to court; short time limits for taking cases; inhibitive costs and financial risk; and a limited culture of using public interest litigation to bring change.

A joint initiative of Clan Childlaw, Human Rights Consortium Scotland, Amnesty International, Friends of the Earth Scotland, Shelter Scotland, JustRight Scotland and Rape Crisis Scotland, the report is launched this afternoon at an event aimed at non-government organisations (NGOs), and an evening keynote address by Lord Advocate James Wolffe QC followed by an expert panel. The authoring organisations are clear that if human rights are to be progressed in Scotland, more NGOs need to be able to pursue strategic cases.

Proposals include:

  • better information about upcoming and current cases, on the Scottish Courts website;
  • amending the Court of Session rules to give interveners in judicial reviews the right to receive court papers;
  • clarifying the test of "sufficient interest", giving it a broad interpretation;
  • allowing the Scottish Human Rights Commission to take proceedings in its own name, and providing resources;
  • allowing interventions in procedures beyond judicial review, and removing the "exceptional circumstances" criterion;
  • exploring ways to ensure time limits are not an undue barrier, and extending the three month limit for judicial review in public interest cases;
  • a presumption of waiver of court fees for certain types of orgainsations, and that protective expenses orders will be made in public interest cases, with their use being extended beyond environmental cases;
  • exploring models of funding public interest litigation in Scotland;
  • potential new sector specific law centres, and secondments for legal professionals in the third sector to NGOs;
  • exploring how the Law Society of Scotland could better support developing legal capacity in NGOs.

Mhairi Snowden, coordinator of the Human Rights Consortium Scotland commented: "Public interest litigation is relatively rare in Scotland. Organisations in Scotland do not often go to court to press for human rights protections to be enforced, but it is much more common elsewhere in the UK.

"However we know that raising human rights law in court is vital and an essential part of a flourishing human rights culture and society.

"We want human rights used in every possible way to make sure that they are taken seriously, and that people in Scotland are treated with dignity and respect. That is why we are asking Government and legal decision-makers to take a good hard look at this area and take action to tackle the barriers."

Fiona Jones, policy and advocacy consultant, Clan Childlaw said: "As an organisation we try to use law strategically to further children and young people's rights in Scotland, for example by intervening as a third party in court cases to provide the court with the children's rights perspective of the issues before it. 

There are challenges for organisations – particularly voluntary organisations – that wish to take legal action to ensure the rights of the people they represent are upheld and enforced. This report aims to generate discussion of some of these challenges and how they can be overcome."

Naomi McAuliffe, programme director for Amnesty International in Scotland added: "Amnesty International has a strong record of pursuing human rights in court to bring real change for people. Whether on the extradition of those accused of crimes against humanity, mass surveillance by states, or access to safe and legal healthcare for women in Northern Ireland, sometimes the only option left for justice and redress is through the courts.

"This year is the 20th anniversary of the Human Rights Act and it's important that people know that this legislation enables them to take the Government, a local authority or other public bodies to court for infringing their rights.

"But going to court can be an expensive and intimidating process and more needs to be done to address the barriers to individuals and organisations taking cases on the everyday human rights abuses happening in Scotland." 

The Lord Advocate said: "The rule of law and respect for fundamental rights are the foundation of a just society. I hope that this report stimulates interest in how the law protects human rights; and debate about how the protection of human rights can be further improved. I look forward to studying it carefully. It is essential that our shared values of respect for human rights are protected by a vigorous and accessible system of justice."

Click here to view the discussion paper.