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‘No reason why judges should not be subject to a register of interests’ – Angus MacDonald MSP in Holyrood debate on register of judicial interests petition

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 Angus MacDonald MSP (Falkirk East) (SNP). Angus MacDonald is also a member of the Public Petitions Committee.

Angus MacDonald MSP Register of Judicial Interests debate – Petition PE1458 Scottish Parliament 9 Oct 2014

Angus MacDonald (Falkirk East) (SNP): I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate and, not least, to congratulate the petitioner, Peter Cherbi, on being bold enough to bring the petition to the Public Petitions Committee. Not many people are willing to take on the might of the judiciary.

As we have heard, the petition calls for all members of Scotland’s judiciary to be subject to a full and publicly available register of interests. It envisages the creation of a single, independently regulated publicly available source containing current information on judges’ backgrounds and financial interests, details of recusals and any other information that is routinely lodged in registers of interests across all walks of public life in the UK and further afield.

Given that we as elected members and legislators are expected and obliged to declare our interests, I do not see why members of Scotland’s judiciary should be treated any differently.

During our deliberations, the committee learned of a similar proposal in New Zealand, which the convener of the committee mentioned. A member’s bill sponsored by Green MP Dr Kennedy Graham was proceeding through the parliamentary process as we were deliberating on the petition. However, I believe that the bill was subsequently withdrawn following agreement with members of the House of Representatives and the New Zealand Government.

Dr Graham explained to our committee that the motivation for the bill was

“to seek to ensure that judges are assisted through institutional means, rather than relying purely on personal discretion & judgement, in determining whether they should handle a case or not. The bill would protect them from accusations or insinuations that their judgement was poor.”

It was envisaged that it would

“promote … confidence in the judiciary”,

especially if it showed that the judicial system was above reproach.

Any member of the public watching the debate this afternoon would be entitled to ask, “What on earth is wrong with that?” As I have said, I would be inclined to agree with them.

However, it would seem that the judiciary is not exactly keen on the idea of such a register. I put on record my disappointment, as the committee as a whole did, at the lack of engagement between the full committee and the Lord President, Lord Gill. Given the spirit of openness and transparency that we in the Parliament so readily hold in high regard, it was a clear snub to the committee when Lord Gill refused to appear in public. If a register of interests is to be resisted by the judiciary, it must be borne in mind that nothing undermines public confidence in a nation’s institutions and procedures more than a suspicion that a public servant may have suffered a conflict of interest arising from, for example, a financial engagement in a particular dealing in which one was professionally involved.

I am not suggesting that anything untoward is going on anywhere, but surely, to ensure that no such suggestions can ever be made in future, we must look at creating a system that gives the general public peace of mind. Thankfully, accusations of bias are rare, but situations of perceived bias are not unknown.

I stress, in response to Jackson Carlaw’s comments, that the matter before us is not about having confidence in the judiciary but about ensuring that everything is above board. I note the minister’s comment that the current safeguards are sufficient and her observation that no amendments on the subject were lodged in advance of Tuesday’s stage 3 debate on the Courts Reform (Scotland) Bill. However, as the decision is for Lord Gill, an amendment to that bill should not be required.

If we as elected members have to register and declare our interests, I see no reason why members of Scotland’s judiciary should not be subject to a full and publicly available register of judicial interests.

I once again congratulate Peter Cherbi on bringing the situation to the attention of the Parliament, and I hope that the Scottish Government and the Lord President will reconsider and take the petitioner’s suggestions on board, which would help to allay concerns among the wider public in Scotland.

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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