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Judges should not be above scrutiny: Scottish Parliament MSPs to debate petition calling for a Register of Interests for Scotland’s judiciary

10 Oct

MSPs to debate proposal for judges to declare interests MSPs in the Scottish Parliament’s main chamber will, today, Thursday 9 October  debate a proposal to create a register of judicial interests as called for in Petition PE1458: Register of Interests for members of Scotland’s judiciary.

The public petition, submitted to the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee in late 2012 envisages the creation of a single independently regulated register of interests containing information on judges backgrounds, their personal wealth, undeclared earnings, business & family connections inside & outside of the legal profession, offshore investments, hospitality, details on recusals and other information routinely lodged in registers of interest across all walks of public life in the UK and around the world.

Since January 2013, members of the Petitions Committee have looked at the issues raised in the petition, and have taken evidence from the now former Judicial Complaints Reviewer (JCR) Moi Ali, who told msps last year there was little transparency or accountability in Scotland’s judiciary.

Moi Ali’s evidence session with MSPs was published in an earlier article along with video footage here: As Scotland’s top judge battles on against transparency, Judicial Complaints Reviewer tells MSPs judges should register their interests like others in public life

Moi Ali also supports the proposal to create a register of judicial interests.

To-date, the only opposition to the proposal has come from Scotland’s top judge – Lord President & Lord Justice General Brian Gill.

And, even though the 72 year old top judge who recently enjoyed a 6 day State Visit to Qatar – declares ‘some’ of his assets in a small scale register of interests published in an earlier article here: Scotland’s Judicial Rich List, Lord Gill remains adamant he will not create a register of interests for all members of the Scottish judiciary.

While the Scottish Government does not currently support the need for a register of interests, Ministers have said in letters to the Petitions Committee it is up to the Lord President to create a register on his own if he wishes.

However, Lord Gill – who earns £218,470 a year and has already declared a list of investments, directorships and links to companies, has aggressively lashed out at the media, litigants, court users and members of the public, over the call for further transparency. The top judge also refused several invitations to show up at the Scottish Parliament and face questions from MSPs.

Potentially, the debate today in the Scottish Parliament could lead to MSPs agreeing in the future that legal changes should be made to compel judges to reveal their interests.

The key issue for the Committee is whether there is a reasonable public expectation that Scotland’s judges are transparent in their dealings and their interests.

They may ask the question: If MSPs and Members of other Parliaments are required to reveal their interests, then why not Scotland’s judges? Currently, judges in Scotland (and England) are not obliged to reveal their interests.

In considering the petition, the Public Petitions Committee called Lord Gill, Lord President and Lord Justice General and Scotland’s longest serving judge, to give evidence to the Committee. Lord Gill opted not attend the Committee. Lord Gill is perfectly within his rights to do this, and a Parliamentary Committee cannot compel a judge to give evidence.

The Parliamentary debate will ‘note the content of the petition’.  It will be led by the Committee’s Convener, David Stewart MSP and closed by Chic Brodie MSP, the Deputy Convener. Roseanna Cunningham, Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs is likely to respond, as are backbenchers and members of the Parliamentary Justice Committee.

David Stewart MSP and convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee (PPC) commented: “The Public Petitions Committee is a direct link between the public and the Scottish Parliament. It is the job of the PPC to shine a light into different corners of public life in Scotland. This can mean taking on the establishment on behalf of the petitioner, even where this may cause significant discomfort for elements of that establishment.

“The key issue for the Committee is whether there is a reasonable public expectation that our judges are transparent in their dealings and their interests. If MSPs and Members of other Parliaments are required to reveal their interests, then why not Scotland’s judges? The Committee believes it is crucial we activate the first parliamentary debate on this important topic on behalf of the petitioner.”

Describing the work of the Public Petitions Committee, David Stewart MSP continued: “Petitions to the Parliament are a direct way for individuals, community groups and organisations to raise issues with Parliament. To date we have received more than one-thousand, five-hundred petitions, calling for action on a very broad range of topics. Petitions have resulted in a wide range of actions, including parliamentary debate, changes to law and policy direction and even official government apologies for past wrongs.

“The Committee is at its best when it kick-starts positive change in Scotland, and many petitions are successful. Petitions from the public have been a crucial factor in bringing about better access to cancer drugs and improving school bus safety.  A petition calling for stronger NHS support for chronic pain sufferers led to the Government’s announcement of a new Centre for Chronic Pain earlier this year, while a petition highlighting the devastating impact on women’s health of polypropylene mesh medical devices led to their suspension.

“One of the things I am proudest of as Convener of the Committee is that, unlike the system in place at Westminster, each and every petition lodged on the Scottish Parliament’s petitions system is considered by the Committee at a formal Committee meeting. The PPC consists of seven MSPs from all the main parties. Although we may have our political differences, we wholeheartedly agree that we want many more people, passionate about campaigning for positive change to submit a petition directly to the Scottish Parliament.”

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 three 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.”

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 can be found here : A Register of Interests for Scotland’s Judiciary

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