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Access to Justice, Hospitality or Bribes ? Scotland’s Courts revealed as haven of lawyers gift giving to staff, secret favours & private profiteering by court clerks

11 Oct

Judges don’t declare their gifts, interests while court staff do, sort of. SCOTLAND’S COURTS are little more than a haven of questionable hospitality from law firms, secret favours & errands run by Scottish Court Service staff for lawyers, gift giving and private profiteering by senior officers of the court who are paid large sums of public money to keep the wheels of Scotland’s creaky “Victorian” courts system turning at a pace most now regard as glacial.

The information comes to light in disclosures by the Scottish Court Service in response to Freedom of Information requests after it emerged that ordinary court service staff are required to declare the presents they receive from solicitors & others, while judges are not. Scotland’s judiciary have so far resisted calls to declare hospitality and their wealth, interests & links to the legal and other professions in a Register of Judicial Interests as called for in Petition PE1458: Register of Interests for members of Scotland’s judiciary.

Extract of Register of Hospitality 2013 Scottish Courts Service. Disclosures from the Scottish Court Service in documents reveal that in the last five years, over 500 instances of gifts and hospitality received by publicly funded SCS were declared under the rules.

Gifts such as expensive champagne, wines, chocolates and dinner invitations were given by lawyers and others to Sheriff Clerks and SCS staff, along with invitations to the Royal Garden Party, paid-for trips in planes, tickets to football matches and a host of other goods, services & gifts many court users may well come to question in terms of how much this gift giving by lawyers dents the supposed impartiality of court staff.

It has also emerged in the media that in some cases, lawyers have actually paid for criminal fines accrued by court staff, leading some to question their reasons for doing so and what secret benefits this brought to the legal profession and court staff involved.

Privately, legal sources have acknowledged to Diary of Injustice that it is suspected a lot of gifts have not been declared by SCS staff, and that much of the gift giving may well be seen as thanks for favours done in court for law firms, particularly those who are pursuing clients for unpaid fees.

Confirming the air of suspicion over the hospitality register, the SCS explained in their response to the FOI request from Diary of Injustice : “In May 2010 we received an FOI relating to the acceptance of gifts by members of staff. On our investigation to establish the information we became concerned that some staff may have accepted gifts or hospitality but failed to register those in accordance with our policy.”

“We asked Gillian Thomson, former Chief Executive of the Accountant in Bankruptcy to investigate this and she reported to us in May 2010.  The report flagged up some areas of the then policy which merited strengthening to assist staff to understand their obligations regarding seeking authority for or registering gifts or hospitality.”

Report on gift giving at Scotland’s Courts by Gillian Thomson OBE. According to the report by the former AIB Chief Executive, “A few staff felt that all gifts and hospitality etc should be refused such a step is not likely to be workable, indeed it is more likely to have a detrimental effect on moral in some areas. Almost all who expressed a view, however, agreed that people who were external to SCS could misunderstand perceived close working relationships. And some others sought clarity on whether or not it was acceptable to receive gifts from or give gifts to the Judiciary.”

Ms Thomson’s report went on to state : “Staff are of course entitled to a family/private life and the public sector should not fear association with private however great care is needed over impropriety and conflict of interest.”

Ms Thomson recommended the “SCS should revise the Policy on Acceptance of Gifts, Rewards and Hospitality to ensure that it is fit for purpose for all staff, taking account of the various roles performed within SCS. It may also be time to revisit the levels of value for gifts and hospitality.”

The report was also highly critical of the state of the SCS Registers of Hospitality, stating : “The information currently captured on the registers is insufficient to provide assurance that staff are using their common sense and considering issues such as conflict of interest. The registers seem sparsely populated and some of the names appear more frequently as seen in Appendix E. Indeed, some of the entries on the hospitality register have been retrospectively recorded.”

“One interviewee commented that on the 2 occasions they had asked for hospitality to be recorded they were either not recorded or put on the wrong register. Although a small sample it may be worth consider the process of reporting. The formatting of documents was also raised, there is perhaps a need to ensure they are easy to read for all, including those with visual impairments. so that SCS may wish to look at the registers held by other organizations, a good example of which might be the gifts and hospitality register held by the Scottish Government which uses a self referral facility. Random audits could be carried out to ensure compliance.”

Ms Thomson went on to recommend : “SCS should develop the individual registers to contain more information to allow better monitoring of what was offered, to whom it was offered and by whom it was approved, these changes would provide better assurance that the policy is being complied with and more easily identify any attempt to offer inappropriate gifts or hospitality to staff.”

“In addition this should create  an opportunity to monitor the consistency of advice provided and to counter any assertions of conflict of interest. SCS should also consider improving access to the registers. This might take the form of an electronic self certifying document for lower value gifts, rewards and hospitality.”

The question of Sheriff Clerks profiteering on the side from their roles in court also raised recommendations to bring the practice to an end : “Several staff raised the issue of sheriff clerks who carry out extrajudicial taxations and private assessments and who personally benefit financially from these activities.”

“Not only is it inappropriate in terms of the civil service code requirements for staff who are public servants to be able to receive private gain from their employment it is also highly divisive when other staff see such benefits being derived from simply being in the right post of Auditor of Court within the Sheriff Courts.”

Ms Thomson recommended : “SCS should bring the practice of sheriff clerks profiting privately from their employment by SCS to an end as quickly as possible”

While the recommendation to prevent Sheriff Clerks from profiteering privately was made by Ms Thomson back in 2010, it appears not to have been heeded by all, as several cases brought to the attention of Diary of Injustice over the past two years have revealed financial relationships between court staff and law firms which have emerged through investigation of cases where solicitors were attempting to pursue clients for questionable fee demands, some of which have led to years of suffering and personal bankruptcy for innocent members of the public.

Curiously, while Scotland’s Lord President Lord Gill has continued to argue the setting up of Registers of Interest (and hospitality) for the judiciary would cause undue harm to judges, even dent the possibility of recruiting to the bench, it is the case the staff of the Scottish Court Service who run Lord Gill’s courts have been required to declare their hospitality for a number of years without any of the problems Lord Gill has thrown against a call for a Register of Judicial Interests.

Given we now have one half of the courts system declaring or being seen to declare some of their hospitality and interests, It is therefore clear the same rules must be applied to the judiciary, and even more so, given their position in public life.

Previous articles on the lack of transparency within Scotland’s judiciary, investigations of the judiciary by Diary of Injustice including reports from the Sunday Mail newspaper, and video footage of debates at the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee can be found here : A Register of Interests for Scotland’s Judiciary

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