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COURT SECRETS: Scotland’s anti-transparency top judge Lord Brian Gill threatens media censorship in row over reporting access to court papers

06 Aug

Top judge Brian Gill warns media will be blocked from access to courts. SCOTLAND’S top judge, Lord President & Lord Justice General Brian Gill has issued an UNPRECEDENTED Judicial ‘notice’ warning the media they will be blocked from access to reporting on court cases because of “significant concerns” relating to public disclosures of cases going through Scotland’s hugely expensive yet slow moving courts system.

The move by Lord Gill to censor media access to court documents and public reporting of criminal or civil cases often stuck in courts for years at huge expense to taxpayers and litigants, comes after increasing questions from the media and the Scottish Parliament on the inadequate state of Scotland’s justice system, and the secret undeclared interests of top judges on huge salaries who head our publicly funded courts.

What is little short of a judicial proclamation from Lord Gill, originally marked ‘not for publication’ but now available HERE on the Scottish Court Service website, states “For some time the Court has been reviewing the practice of allowing journalists an opportunity to see complaints and indictments for note-taking purposes before cases call in court.”

The judge goes on to claim court staff have disclosed “excessive” amounts of information to journalists on cases citing unspecified “recent breaches” of the current understanding between courts and the media on how cases are reported in the press. The judge then makes reference to the Data Protection Act 1998 as an excuse for blocking transparency in court activities.

Lord Gill concludes his edict on press freedoms by stating “the media are reminded of their responsibilities in the matter.”

This latest anti-transparency move by Lord Gill, who signed the media order as Lord Justice General, has drawn criticism from legal insiders who accuse the top judge of creating a de facto media law which may considerably affect or even alter the outcome of cases in court.

It is also clear Lord Gill’s sweeping judicial notice – widely being interpreted as a major policy statement from Scotland’s top judge, has come about with little open debate, discussion or consultation with Parliament.

A solicitor speaking to Diary of Injustice criticised the secrecy move by Scotland’s top judge, claiming Lord Gill’s threatened ban on the press may alter the course of justice where media attention and public interest in how the courts handle cases is both desirable and a necessity in a democratic society.

He said: “If the Lord President is minded to ban the media from court access to cases, does this also have implications for litigants and legal teams who may also be prevented in the future from securing necessary access to information and evidence crucial to a person’s right to a fair hearing?”

Lord Gill’s media policy statement:

NOTICE: ADVANCE ACCESS OF THE MEDIA TO COURT DOCUMENTS

1. For some time the Court has been reviewing the practice of allowing journalists an opportunity to see complaints and indictments for note-taking purposes before cases  call in court.The review was necessary because of significant concerns arising from the  Data  Protection Act 1998 (“DPA”) in relation to the disclosure of personal data and sensitive personal data in these documents.

2.  The current  practice  gives  journalists  an  opportunity to attend and report  on noteworthy cases; but  it is now clear that the information being disclosed is excessive for this purpose.

3.  In due course the courts will  move to an electronic  portal-based system  that will enable the media  to access  securely  information about  forthcoming  cases and,  in  time,  other  information  such  as  reporting  restrictions.  This  will provide sufficient information for reporting  purposes  but will ensure that  the court will comply with the requirements of the DPA.

4.  In  the  interim  the  current  practice  will  continue,  but  on  the  strict understanding that no information obtained from a complaint or indictment is to be published before a case calls in court.  In the light of recent breaches of that  understanding,  the  media  are  reminded  of  their  responsibilities  in  the matter.

Brian Gill Lord Justice General Edinburgh 30 July 2014

SCOTLAND’S ANTI TRANSPARENCY TOP JUDGE :

Scotland’s top judge Lord President Lord Brian Gill fiercely opposes calls for any form of transparency & public accountability of the judiciary and Scotland’s Courts.

Over the course of nearly two years, Scotland’s top judge Lord Gill has focussed his anger on a Scottish Parliament investigation into calls for a register of judicial interests. The register proposal would reveal the judiciary’s vast personal, undeclared wealth, extensive family and business connections throughout the legal profession, links to big business, offshore trusts & investments, ownership of numerous and high value properties through a variety of ‘creative’ arrangements, directorships, shareholdings, and even unpublished criminal records of members of the judiciary.

Lord Gill refused at least two invitations to appear before the Scottish Parliament to give evidence and face questions on his opposition to the proposal to create a register of judicial interests. The top judge has also used the Scotland Act as a loophole to avoid further scrutiny on the matter.

Lord Gill’s challenge to MSPs declared judicial opposition to transparency. In Lord Gill’s opening letter to MSPs on the call for a register of judicial interests, the judge claimed “In practical terms it would be impossible for all judicial office holders to identify all the interests that could conceivably arise in any future case. The terms of the Judicial Oath and the Statement of Principles of Judicial Ethics ensure that such a difficulty does not arise and that the onus is on the judicial office holder to declare any interest at the outset.”

In what was a hint of the sheer hostility felt by the judiciary against a call to bring transparency to judges interests, Lord Gill went onto accuse the media, press, litigants, court users and just about everyone else with an interest in transparency of being potentially hostile and aggressive, simply because someone may wish to raise questions of judges interests similar to the same kinds of questions which are raised of interests in other public officials and those in public life, politics & government.

And, if MSPs were unsure of the depth of Lord Gill’s attitude towards transparency, the top judge went on to refuse to appear before the Scottish Parliament, and used a loophole in the Scotland Act to justify his sweeping declaration he did not require to answer questions from Scotland’s democratically elected politicians.

Lord Gill’s use of Scotland Act against MSPs was reported in the media. Writing in a letter to msps, Lord Gill implied cooperation with Parliament would be withdrawn over calls to make judges more transparent in register : “Section 23(7) of the Scotland Act provides inter alia that the Parliament may not require a judge to attend its proceedings for the purposes of giving evidence. This is not a loophole. It is a necessary part of the constitutional settlement by which the Parliament is established. Its purpose is to protect the independence of the judiciary, a vital constitutional principle that is declared in section 1 of the Judiciary and Courts (Scotland) Act 2008”

The judge continued: “When a committee invites a judge to give evidence before it, I have to decide whether the subject matter might infringe the principle of judicial independence; and whether the evidence required could be satisfactorily given in writing.”

At a time when questions are being asked as to why Scotland’s antiquated, slow moving and expensive justice system has not kept pace with reforms to other public services, Lord Gill’s attempt to cover over the failures of Scots justice by closing down media access to the courts raises questions over the honesty of proposed changes contained in legislation currently going through the Scottish Parliament, changes which are derived from many recommendations Lord Gill once made in his Civil Courts Review.

Lord Gill’s latest Victorian venture has no place in a modern society in 2014, where courts funded by the public purse to the tune of enormous sums of money must be transparent, accountable and open to all, instead of being run by an ageing judiciary as a symbol of personal power, secretive wealth & undeclared interests and ultimately, nothing short of a business venture for the legal profession.

Previous articles on the lack of transparency within Scotland’s judiciary, investigations by Diary of Injustice including reports from the media, and video footage of debates at the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee deliberations on Petition PE1458: Register of Interests for members of Scotland’s judiciary can be found here : A Register of Interests for Scotland’s Judiciary

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