Report - Justice

The administration of local justice requires some remarks on our part in connection with the interests and feelings of the poorer classes of the community, in consequence of representations which have been made to us in the course of our inquiry.

The population of the Highlands and Islands is inconsiderable, and spread over a vast area. The seats where courts are held are restricted in number, and the procurators or certified pleaders are in most cases so few, that it is difficult for the people to get access to effective legal assistance otherwise than by correspondence. In the county of Sutherland, with a population of more than 23,000 distributed over wide tracts, there are three procurators settled in one corner of the district. In Lewis, with a population exceeding 25,000, there are four procurators, all at Stornoway. In the Long Island district of Inverness-shire, extending from Harris to Barra, and possessing a local sheriff-substitute, there are none. In Skye, with a population of over 17,000, there are two, both at Portree, one of whom is procurator-fiscal, or public prosecutor, while the other is factor for the greater part of the island. The difficulty which the poor experience in securing professional advice is to be deplored, but it is one which can scarcely be removed by legislation, and which, we trust, is not much felt among a people who are not litigious, and whose regular conduct and simple social relations do not offer many occasions for an appeal to justice, except in connection with small debts and claims for rent. The expense of executing small debt summonses is a hardship more susceptible of remedy. The cost of this proceeding is, in those remote localities, nearly always quite disproportionate to the amount sued for, and as much more important matters are now intimated by means of registered letters, the same method might be adopted for the purpose here referred to.

It has been suggested to us that justice might be cheapened and accelerated by enabling the sheriff of the county, acting alone or with other judicial officers of the same class, to hold courts with greater frequency, at a greater number of local centres of population and business, and that the powers now^ used by the court of the resident sheriff, for the adjudication of small debts on circuit, might be extended to all descriptions of cases within its jurisdiction, which might then be summarily disposed of on the spot, without being brought to the permanent seat of the court. This is, no doubt, a plausible and humane proposal, but it may be doubted whether it would be attended in practice with the advantages expected. The number of places at which the court of the sheriff is held, for the adjudication of small debts, can, under the existing Act, be added to by the Secretary of State. We are of opinion that the Secretary of State on the advice of the sheriff of the county should carefully consider in what measure this power should be exercised with a view to the convenience of the inhabitants. If the court were empowered to deal with other cases of a different kind, and higher value, the cost of engaging local pleaders on circuit would, under the exceptional circumstances of the country, be so great, as to deter the litigant from availing himself of the facilities designed for his benefit; while the charge for moving the court, with its attendant officials, would be onerous to Government and the functionaries concerned, and out of all proportion to the business to be disposed of.

The office of sheriff-substitute in the Highlands and Islands is not always deemed a desirable one, and this circumstance has the effect of limiting selection at the seats of legal patronage, so that the choice statute of the responsible authorities may often fall on parties altogether unacquainted with the peculiar conditions of life in the districts referred to, and ignorant of the habitual language of the people. It may be worthy of consideration whether, in making selections for this office, the attention of Government might not be more frequently directed to experienced practitioners in the local courts, and whether preferment both to the office of sheriff and to that of procurator-fiscal in the localities where these offices are least coveted, might not be to some extent recognised as conferring a claim to more desirable appointments elsewhere. It is also expedient that the important qualification of a knowledge of Gaelic should not be lost sight of, and the same qualification is as desirable in the case of procurators-fiscal as in that of sheriffs. The representatives of public justice in the secluded situations to which we allude are placed under many disadvantages with reference to society and residence. There might possibly be in some cases an unconscious admission of external influences, and in other cases the existence of such influences might be suspected v, here it toes not operate. We think that, for the perfect independence of the local sheriff, he should be relieved as far as possible of all embarrassment and obligations in his social relations, and be provided with an official residence by Government. There is a natural tendency, in the poor and remote localities which we are adverting, towards a concentration of offices,partly consequent on the inadequate remuneration of public functionaries, partly on the paucity of qualified persons, and partly, it may be, on the desire of local power which is attached to the cumulative possession of positions of this nature. The clerkship to the School Board, the collectorships of rates, the office of distributor of stamps, the clerkships of harbour trusts, the local bank agency, the factorate for private estates, and others, may be and are in some measure united in the hands of a single individual, while other persons perhaps equally deserving hold no offices at all. This when carried to excess is a state of things to be deprecated, but Crown office alone can be controlled by authority, and those which are principally open to our remarks are the offices of procurator-fiscal and sheriff-clerk. We are of opinion that these functionaries, so closely identified with the administration of the law, sheriff-clerks should be prohibited from doing any professional work or any business for profit other than their proper business respectively, either by themselves, or their partners, deputes, or others, and that this restriction should contemplate functions performed in other counties, as well as the counties in which they hold their appointments. If regulations of this nature should, in some cases, involve the necessity of higher salaries being appropriated to the offices in question, the number of the offices might be reduced by consolidation, but even if the aggregate charge to the Treasury were slightly augmented, it may be hoped that Government would not decline a concession recommended by the interests of justice.

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