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‘Get your tanks off my lawn’: No-show top judge brought about debate on register of judicial interests – Jackson Carlaw MSP

22 Oct

Scottish Parliament debate on register of judicial interests. ON Thursday 09 October 2014, the Scottish Parliament’s main chamber held a detailed ninety minute debate on calls to require judges to declare their significant financial and other interests, as called for in Petition PE1458: Register of Interests for members of Scotland’s judiciary. On conclusion of the debate, MSPs overwhelmingly supported motion S4M-11078 – in the name of Public Petitions Convener David Stewart MSP on petition PE1458 and urged the Scottish Government to give further consideration to a register of interests for judges..

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.

In a move aimed at widening public awareness of the undisclosed interests of Scotland’s judiciary and details contained in the recent debate by MSPs at Holyrood, each day this week, Diary of Injustice is publishing the official record of the speeches given by individual MSPs who participated in the debate along with video footage.

This article focuses on the opening speech given by Jackson Carlaw MSP (West Scotland, Scottish Conservative). Mr Carlaw is also a member of the Public Petitions Committee.

Jackson Carlaw MSP opening speech Register of Judicial Interests Petition PE1458 Scottish Parliament

Jackson Carlaw (West Scotland) (Con): I found the debate particularly difficult to prepare for—so much so that I have come with nothing to say.

Roseanna Cunningham:

I do not believe that.

Jackson Carlaw:

I have nothing prepared to say. I thought that I would listen carefully to the arguments that were presented and then comment.

I want to deal with the matter in two ways. I want to deal with the issue at hand in the petition and with the way in which the Lord President responded to it.

I always thought that the petition was rather curious, as it was based on something that might be going to happen in New Zealand. I was never entirely impressed with it, but I thought that, as the issue had been raised, it was perfectly appropriate for the Public Petitions Committee to seek to find out the response of the Scottish Government and the Lord President.

I should say that, among my parliamentary colleagues—I will not name anyone—I have been told quite clearly, “We don’t want any of that.” [Laughter.] However, the minister identified quite ably why we should have confidence in the current process and why I am not persuaded that we need a register of interests. There is the judicial oath, there is the statement of principles of judicial ethics and there is the Judiciary and Courts (Scotland) Act 2008. Either we take the view that we appoint the judges and have confidence in the judges whom we appoint, or we do not. I believe that we should.

I think that Graeme Pearson hit on the point that we do not want the whole process of law in the court system being delayed because issues have been raised about whether the judge has an interest that might be regarded as meaning that they ought to recuse themselves from the trial and the whole thing becomes bogged down.

I am not persuaded by the issue, but I thought that the way in which the consideration of the petition developed was less than satisfactory.

We heard from Moi Ali, who said that she did not know why there was not a register, but that

“it has long been the case in this country that particular groups are harder to challenge. In the past, one such group was the medical profession. I had a look at the website of the General Medical Council—the regulator of doctors. Although I think that it would have resisted this strongly in the past, it now publishes registers of interests, records family relationships of its council members and so on.

At one time, it was difficult for politicians to take on that group. It is perhaps difficult to take on the judiciary, because judicial independence is always mentioned. As I said, that is a cornerstone of democracy, but because there has been no separation of accountability and independence, it is easy for the judiciary to say, ‘We are independent, so don’t interfere in that.’ Unless independence and accountability are separated, legislation will continue to include no requirement for more openness and transparency.”—[Official Report, Public Petitions Committee, 17 September 2013; c 1612.]

I thought that that was quite a powerful argument.

The Lord President’s response was essentially, “Get your tanks off my lawn.” It was all very well for the Lord President to send in a written response, but I thought that the best way for him to allow us to explore the issues raised by the petitioner effectively—and, in fact, to give weight to his argument—would have been to have his argument tested by the committee.

From briefings that I have heard from the Law Society of Scotland, it seems that it does not think that the Public Petitions Committee of this Parliament is a grand enough committee to command the Lord President’s attention. The suggestion seemed to be that if it was a subject committee such as the Justice Committee, that would be fair enough, but all manner of petitions could come forward and the Lord President would have to present himself. That is not the way the Public Petitions Committee conducts itself at all. We thought that the petition made a serious argument that ought to be examined.

In language devoid of any colour—which members know that I usually employ—I said at the committee that the impression given was that the Lord President was part of an

“Edwardian-establishment disdain for the right of the hoi polloi—as … he sees it—to have any understanding of such matters”

and that

“the swish of judicial ermine and velvet should cow into deference the public and the legislature in relation to our right to understand the issues.”—[Official Report, Public Petitions Committee, 17 September 2013; c 1616-17.]

My colleagues on the committee will speak for themselves, but that is what I think many of them found slightly unsettling and unacceptable.

When petitions are lodged that, as Graeme Pearson said, raise the perception of a problem but there is a very cogent argument, which the minister articulated, why there is no need for further action, the best approach is not to suggest private meetings off the record with members of the committee to explore issues within a limited mandate and framework. The appropriate way to proceed would have been for the Lord President to come to the committee and, in a responsible environment, put his case on the record and allow us to test it. In all likelihood, we would have agreed with the principle that he articulated and would have advocated that that is the right approach. However, we were not able to do that, which is why we are having this debate today. That illustrates that, in the modern age, one cannot simply say, “We are part of something that is independent. We are not accountable to the Parliament on these matters and therefore there is no need for us to make a public defence of our argument.” I do not have a problem with the position taken, but I have a big problem with how we have got to the point that we are at today.

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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