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‘Judiciary should move with the times to retain public confidence’ – Joan McAlpine MSP on Scottish Parliament register of judicial interests debate

23 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 speech given by Joan McAlpine MSP (South Scotland) (SNP). Joan McAlpine is a member of the Economy, Energy & Tourism Committee and the Education & Culture Committee, she also sits on a number of Cross Party Groups in the Scottish Parliament.

Joan McAlpine MSP speech Register of Judicial Interests debate Petition PE1458 Scottish Parliament 9 Oct 2014

Joan McAlpine (South Scotland) (SNP): The subject is exactly the sort of matter that the Parliament should debate, and it is testament to the Public Petitions Committee that it has brought the issue to the chamber.

I am naturally inclined to support a register of judges’ interests. I understand the need to enshrine the independence of the judiciary and I understand Lord Gill’s decision to decline the committee’s invitation because, although that decision understandably drew criticism, one could argue that the judiciary should not be subject to political pressure. However, I tend to agree with Jackson Carlaw that, in this instance, Lord Gill should have come to the committee to argue his case and to show that the judiciary is not a law unto itself.

David Stewart:

Does the member share my view that, on one level, there is nothing new about the proposal because, prior to 2009, law lords had to declare an interest, as they were members of the House of Lords? In some senses, we are asking for a reintroduction of something that was well established in Scots law.

Joan McAlpine:

Yes, I agree—that is a fair point.

Perhaps it is because I am a former journalist that I naturally lean towards increased transparency in all areas of public life. The committee convener outlined the need for that in his opening remarks. I take great pride in the fact that there is more transparency in the Scottish Parliament, for example, than there is at Westminster.

Neil Findlay:

Will the member take an intervention?

Joan McAlpine:

No, thank you.

However, I have considered the safeguards that ministers have outlined today, in particular the judicial oath, which I am sure all our judges take very seriously indeed. I do not think that many members of the public know about the judicial oath or what it entails. I am interested in knowing more about the process that kicks in if someone is suspected of breaking the judicial oath. Has that ever happened and what are the consequences?

I read with great interest the Lord President’s letter to David Stewart MSP. I was not particularly convinced by the passage on practical considerations, in which the Lord President suggests that it would not be possible to identify all the interests. The subtext seems to be that it is a bit of a hassle. Well, yes, it is a bit of a hassle. It is probably a bit of a hassle for MSPs, too, but it has to be done. I was more swayed by the passage on unintended consequences in which the Lord President says:

“Consideration requires to be given to judges’ privacy and freedom from harassment by aggressive media or hostile individuals, including dissatisfied litigants. It is possible that the information held on such a register could be abused. These are significant concerns. If publicly criticised or attacked, the judicial office holder cannot publicly defend himself or herself, unlike a politician.”

I thought that that was a fair comment.

I do not think that the matter of a register of judges’ interests will disappear. We have seen the progress that is being made here and in New Zealand as a result of the debate being opened up, even though that is short of establishing a register. It is important that all national institutions continue to revise their procedures so that they retain public confidence. It is easy to see how public confidence can be lost if that is not done. The Westminster Parliament expenses scandal blew up precisely because of a lack of transparency in the system. I recall that there was a belief that, if MPs were completely transparent about what they claimed, that would somehow open them up to too much scrutiny, which would be a bad thing. In the end, MPs really came a cropper because of that.

Similarly, the claims of historical child abuse by powerful establishment figures at Westminster and how they may or may not have been dealt with by the authorities at the time surely demonstrate that the way that things were done 30 years ago is not the way that we should do things now. Therefore, I very much hope that the Lord President is paying attention to the debate.

We have to move with the times. It is a recurring feature of tabloid newspapers to draw attention to judges who do not move with the times. One particularly famous incident was in a court case down south when the footballer Paul Gascoigne was taking to court someone who had written an unauthorised biography. The judge clearly had no idea who Paul Gascoigne was, as his lawyer had to explain that he was a famous footballer, to which the judge replied, “Rugby or association?”

I gently suggest to the Lord President, in whose gift it is to set up a register, as we cannot legislate for it in the Parliament, that he should be mindful of the need for the judiciary to move with the times, along with every other public institution, in order to retain the confidence of the public.

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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