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It seems absolutely right that there is transparency – Elaine Murray MSP closing speech on register of judicial interests debate at Holyrood

24 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 closing speech given by Elaine Murray MSP (Dumfriesshire) (Scottish Labour). Elaine Murray is deputy Convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee, and is also a member of a number of Cross Party Group in the Scottish Parliament.

Elaine Murray MSP Register of Judicial Interests Petition PE1458 Scottish Parliament 9 October 2014

Elaine Murray (Dumfriesshire) (Lab): I assure members that this will be the last time that they have to hear from me this week, which I am sure is a relief to everybody.

The Public Petitions Committee is to be congratulated on its tenacity in pursuing the petition, because obstacles were put in its way and the committee continued to pursue the petition over a substantial period of time.

I was completely unaware until the debate was scheduled that members of the judiciary are not required to publish a register of their interests. If I had been aware of that earlier, I might have added it to my list of unsuccessful amendments to the Courts Reform (Scotland) Bill. I am sure, had I done so, that the minister would have informed me—as Angus MacDonald said—that it was a matter for the Lord President and not for the bill.

Dave Stewart, Roseanna Cunningham and others have reminded us that there are three safeguards—the judicial oath, the statement of principles of judicial ethics and the complaints procedure—and that members of the judiciary can recuse themselves from a case. “Recuse” is another word that I have added to my vocabulary since joining the Justice Committee. I do not know whether I will have any reason to use it other than about the judiciary, but they are able to recuse themselves and that information is being published as of April. As others have said, as that publication of reasons for recusal is added to, we may get more of an idea about why judges recuse themselves.

David Torrance and others drew a parallel with members of this Parliament. As Jackson Carlaw said, we are required to take an oath or affirmation, we have a code of conduct and complaints about us can be investigated by the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee. I do not think that any of us believe that those three safeguards would be sufficient to ensure public confidence, and that is what is important. We are required to update our register of interests and to declare gifts and whether we employ close relatives. We are also required to register any new interests within 28 days of those interests arising. As Joan McAlpine said, it might be a bit of a hassle, but we all recognise why it is important that we are required to do so.

The minister suggests that we are required to do so because we are accountable to the public but, as Neil Findlay said, the issue is about the scrutiny of decision-making institutions whose decisions can seriously affect members of the public. When we consider it in that context, a register of interests for the judiciary becomes more important.

Local councils are also required to maintain an updated register of interests of councillors. I do not know how all councils operate that but when a councillor in Dumfries and Galloway has a registered interest in part of the business of a meeting, they cannot even attend that part of the meeting, still less take part in discussions. They are not even allowed to sit there glaring at their fellow councillors; they have to leave the room.

I do not think that any elected member resents those requirements on us. It seems absolutely right that there is transparency—an issue that Anne McTaggart raised. It is very important that any personal or financial interests that might possibly affect our decisions are published and that they can be easily accessed by the public so that they can check on them. The register of members’ interests is online so it is easy for the public to check whether we have any particular interests.

As was drawn out in the committee discussions, it is not just politicians who are required to register their interests; members of boards of public agencies such as the Scottish Police Authority and the Scottish Ambulance Service are also required to register their interests. In fact, three judges sit on the board of the Scottish Court Service and their interests have to be registered, so, in a sense, that begs the question, why not others? As Dave Stewart pointed out, members of the House of Lords have to register their interests and therefore, prior to the installation of the Supreme Court, the law lords were expected to publish their interests, so why must the situation differ for judges?

I realise that there may be security issues around litigants who are unhappy about judgments. However, a register could surely be drawn up in such a way as to protect certain information. To a certain extent, we are protected. We may have constituents who do not much like us or who are upset about what we have done or not done in pursuance of their cases, but there are safeguards in our register and they cannot necessarily find out where we stay and that sort of thing. Surely we would be able to do the same sort of thing for judges.

It is the case, of course, that the judiciary of Scotland are a small band of people and many of them originate from the same strata of society. People are suspicious of the old school tie, who people’s friends and family are and financial relationships. Also, as other members have said, membership of certain organisations can be suspected of being influential. The more that such information is in the public domain, the more people can be assured that such matters do not affect how judgments are made.

In the words of Moi Ali, who stood down as the judicial complaints reviewer this summer after three years’ service:

“Given the position of power held by the judiciary, it is essential not only that they have absolute integrity–but crucially, that they are seen to have absolute integrity.”

Therefore, the issue is not that anyone doubts the judiciary’s integrity, but that the public need to see that integrity.

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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