The Scottish Parliament raised the ceiling for small-claims actions from £750 to £3000 three years ago. Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill explicitly said the move would help those fighting banks over charges through the consumer-friendly small claims courts.
However, in a landmark case on Wednesday, the high-street giant Santander, convinced a Glasgow sheriff that such actions were too complex for small claims courts. The bank's victory means any customer who wishes to fight for their money back will face unlimited costs at a sheriff court - rather than the cheap proceedings of small claims.
The ruling affects about 800 people in Scotland whose cases are currently going through the courts, as well as thousands who are considering action. Santander is being sued for £3000 by NHS worker Allison Walls for what she believes were six years' worth of unwarranted overdraft charges. On Wednesday she said she would have to drop her case after it was switched to the ordinary roll of the sheriff court - where she could face costs of £10,000 in her bid to get her £3000 back.
The sheriff who backed Santander - Andrew Cubie of Glasgow - cited MacAskill's views in his judgment but said, "there could well be exceptional complexity" in the Walls action adding, "I consider that there are difficult questions of law to be resolved in this case."
I consider there are difficult questions of the law to be resolved in this case. Why would the Justice Secretary increase the limit to £3000, specifically citing those who wish to sue banks over unfair charges, then a sheriff decide the small claims court isn't suitable? Kenny MacAskill's duty is to investigate the sheriff's ruling and give the public his opinion. The small claims court is the only access many of us have for suing large multiples without having to worry about massive legal bills. We need to know why this sheriff has moved this action to the ordinary sheriff court. Stating 'it could well be exceptionally complex' is not enough. The public deserve to know Sheriff Cubie's detailed definition of 'exceptionally complex'.