Transparency gained little from private meeting with Lord Gill, MSPs. THE tiny concession of a promise to look at the lumbering Scottish Court Service computer system is all Scotland’s top judge, Lord President Lord Brian Gill managed to concede in a private meeting with two MSPs from the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee who are currently investigating a call to declare judges’ full and complete interests in Petition PE1458: Register of Interests for members of Scotland’s judiciary.
The private meeting, of which there is now speculation and debate about exactly what was recorded, what was left out and whether or not the Lord President objected to notes being taken at all, was discussed at last week’s Public Petitions Committee hearing on Tuesday the 28th January, reported in a previous article HERE
The situation on a further point, relating to declarations by judges Gill, Carloway, Bannatyne and Sheriff Principal Alistair Dunlop and three other judicial colleagues who serve on the board of the Scottish Court Service also became murkier when it was claimed that information of this nature had come as a revelation to the msps who privately met the Lord President and would be part of an expected letter from Gill to the Petitions Committee.
Sunday Herald reports:
Sunday Herald 2 February 2014
SCOTLAND’S top judge, who refuses to back a register of interest for members of the judiciary, has conceded a minor reform to boost transparency.
The Lord President, currently Lord Gill, is looking at pulling together information about judges declining to rule on cases due to a perceived conflict of interest.
MSPs who have criticised the lack of openness in the judiciary welcomed the shift in direction.
Holyrood’s Public Petitions Committee is considering a proposal that would require judges and sheriffs to file a register of financial interests, which could include shareholdings and directorships.
Unlike other public servants such as MPs, MSPs and quango board members, judicial office-holders do not have to give details of their outside interests.
Gill, head of the Judicial Office for Scotland, told MSPs last year there were “sufficient safeguards” in place to ensure judicial impartiality.
He added that a register could infringe a judge’s “freedom from harassment” from “aggressive media or hostile individuals”.
The row deepened after Gill refused to give oral evidence to the committee: MSPs cannot legally compel a judge to attend.
As a compromise, committee convener Dave Stewart MSP and his deputy Chic Brodie held a private meeting with Gill at Holyrood.
At last week’s Public Petitions Committee, Stewart revealed progress had been made with Gill.
He said the senior judge, while maintaining his opposition to a register of financial interests, had promised to “check whether the IT systems can be adapted to provide aggregate information about recusals”.
A recusal is when a judge takes himself off a case due to a perceived conflict of interest. No list of them exists, but Gill is looking at pulling together the information.
Stewart added that such an outcome would mean “ordinary individuals with an interest here could find out how many recusals there were across Scotland”.
He said that Gill would write to MSPs with further details.
Jackson Carlaw, a Tory member of the committee, said at the meeting: “But for the belligerence of this committee in pursuing the issue, there would be no letter forthcoming, and there would be no investigation. I think it rather vindicates the tenacity with which we pursued the matter.”
However, SNP MSP John Wilson, who also sits on the committee, had concerns about the private meeting.
He told the committee it “should not be in a position to hold private discussions with individuals who we ask evidence from”.
Wilson also asked for the note of the meeting to be made public.
A spokeswoman for the Judicial Office for Scotland said: “The Lord President is examining whether it is possible to capture the information on formal recusal to enable it to be made public.
“The Lord President will write to the convener [Stewart] in due course and no further comment can be made at this time.”
It is always welcome when senior figures in public life agree to positive change.
The Lord President, who is the country’s top judge, is against requiring his colleagues to list their financial interests, but he seems to have recognised political concerns about a lack of transparency.
To this end, he is investigating the possibility of compiling a register of “recusals”, which means examples of judges ceasing an interest in a court case due to a perceived conflict.
However, the concession is only a tiny step forward and does not compensate for the way the Lord President has dealt with the bigger issue over the past six months.
To recap, Holyrood’s Public Petitions Committee is considering a call for judges and sheriffs to submit a full list of their “pecuniary” interests.
Such a requirement is not unusual in the public sector, where MPs, MSPs and a host of other public servants have to provide details of shareholdings and directorships.
However, the Lord President believes the judiciary is different.
In written evidence to the committee, he argued that the disclosure of financial information could infringe a judge’s privacy and encourage harassment from “aggressive media or hostile individuals”.
MSPs on the committee wanted to question the Lord President about these views in person – an entirely reasonable expectation.
However, our most senior judge had other ideas and cited a little known legislative clause that means judges cannot be compelled to give parliamentary evidence.
In other words, he dodged scrutiny.
The standoff led to two MSPs on the committee holding a private meeting with Gill: out of sight, and out of mind.
It was in this context that Lord Gill made his concession.
This is clearly not an appropriate way to conduct public debate, and should prompt the government to do two things.
The first is to launch a consultation on whether legislation should be introduced requiring judges to lodge a register of interest.
The second is to open talks with the UK Government about closing the bizarre loophole that allows members of the judiciary to refuse requests to give parliamentary evidence.
Judges, like everyone else in society, are not above scrutiny.
Here comes the Judge? I really don’t think so. Lord Gill finally deigns to see MSPs in private after snubbing Parliament
By Russell Findlay Sunday Mail 2 February 2014
LORD Gill met petitions committee members behind closed doors to discuss conflict of interests – but no minutes were taken.
SCOTLAND’S top judge has met two MSPs in private after twice snubbing requests to give evidence in front of their committee.
The Lord President Lord Gill spoke with the Scottish Parliament’s petitions committee convenor and his deputy – Labour’s David Stewart and the SNP’s Chic Brodie – behind closed doors. But no minutes were taken of what was said in a meeting room at the Parliament’s Queensberry House.
Last year, the country’s most senior judge was criticised when he rejected an invitation from the committee to discuss campaigner Peter Cherbi’s call for a register of interests for judges.
Stewart admitted that only a “summary of key points” was made by the committee clerk.
Committee member John Wilson is demanding that the notes be made public. The SNP MSP said: “What I’m interested in is that we have something which we can put on official record to declare what took place at that meeting.”
And he said that, to protect public confidence in the committee system, they should make sure meetings with anyone asked to give evidence are in public and properly minuted and made public.
Cherbi said: “Surely this is not what the public expect when our elected representatives are meant to be debating a petition calling for greater transparency?”
Gill claimed the Scotland Act allows judges to shun parliament as it ensures judicial independence from political meddling. But critics said the law is meant to protect judges from being quizzed about court decisions, not administrative issues.
Gill has agreed to investigate how many judges have stood down over conflicts of interest.
The Judicial Office for Scotland said: “The meeting was informal. The convenor indicated a summary of key points would be recorded and made publicly available. Lord Gill was content with the approach proposed by the convenor.”
Previous articles on the lack of transparency within Scotland’s judiciary, investigations 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
Petition PE1458: Register of Interests for members of Scotland’s judiciary is due to be heard again at the Scottish Parliament in some weeks time after a letter has been received from the Lord President, who is apparently still refusing to attend the Scottish Parliament and face open questions from all Committee members regarding judges hidden undeclared interests.