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Not everything can be in the public domain …(Parliament dodging, Qatar junket flying judges included?) – Stewart Stevenson MSP on Holyrood register of judicial interests debate

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 speech given by Stewart Stevenson MSP (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP). Stewart Stevenson is a member of the Delegated Powers & Law Reform Committee, the Local Government & Regeneration Committee and is Convener of the Standards, Procedures & Public Appointments Committee. Mr Stevenson is also a member of a Cross Party Group in the Scottish Parliament.

Stewart Stevenson MSP speech Register of Judicial Interests debate Petition PE1458 Scottish Parliament 9 October 2014

 

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP): I congratulate Peter Cherbi on his petition. Whatever position we take on its substance, it is opportune to debate the issues around it because, far from being trivial matters of process, they go to the very heart of trust in the justice system. For the record, I am speaking in the debate not, in any sense, as the convener of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee but as an individual member of the Parliament.

It was with grave misgivings that I heard Jackson Carlaw introduce his speech by saying that he really had nothing to say. I wondered whether the debate was going to turn out to be one of those real political debates that are over not when everything has been said but when everybody has said it. However, so far, every member has made an individual contribution, which is very good.

I intervened on Graeme Pearson for a particular reason. I tried to consider when my entry in the members’ register of interests has come into play. I put many things into it voluntarily, as many of us do, because I think that even though I am not required to mention them, they are things that might matter. For example, I have declared a shareholding in a major bank voluntarily, although it is below the level that requires to be registered, as that touches on lots of things.

When we talk about the interests and connections that a judge might have that would cause recusal, I suspect—but cannot prove at this stage—that finance would be the least of them. I would guess that such interests will almost certainly be relationships, membership of clubs and attendance at events.

David Stewart:

As always, the member is correct. The 14 recusals so far have been, by and large, about relationships—in other words, a sheriff knows a witness. The member is right to suggest that there have been very few financial issues involved in those 14 recusals.

Stewart Stevenson:

I am obliged for that. I did not know that, but the committee convener has put flesh on the bones of my assumption. We will see how it pans out when there are more recusals.

Of necessity, we cannot anticipate and put in a register everything of that character that will come up, or our whole lives would have to be on the register. I have been pursuing genealogical research into my family tree for more than 50 years and have 4,600 people in my family tree. How could I put them all on the register meaningfully? We must be careful, therefore, not to imagine that this is the silver bullet.

John Wilson:

Will the member take an intervention?

Stewart Stevenson:

I want to cover one or two things. If possible, I will come back to Mr Wilson.

The issue in respect of judges is not new. Clause 19 of the Union with England Act 1707, which is one of the bigger clauses in the act, is about the appointment of judges, and it states:

“That no Writer to the Signet be capable to be admitted a Lord of the Session unless he undergo a private and public Trial on the Civil Law before the Faculty of Advocates and be found by them qualified for the said Office”.

Worrying about whom we appoint as judges is not new.

That takes us to the heart of the matter. The Romans had a saying: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”—who will guard the guards? If judges misbehave or do not come up to the required standard, how do we deal with that? Inevitably, there must be a judicial process exercised by whomsoever grips that one.

We have to appoint the right people, because I do not think that we can prescribe and describe all the circumstances that may touch on their ability to make decisions. That is not to say that having a register of financial interests would be without value; I just do not want colleagues to imagine that it would really do much more than scratch the surface of the issue.

We all have interests. The Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth set out a budget today. Will he buy a house in the future and, therefore, be affected by the decisions that he has brought to Parliament on taxing transactions on housing? The answer is, of course, yes. The real test is whether he is doing anything that does other than affect the generality of people—he must not instead do things that affect him or a particular group of which he is a member. That is the kind of test that judges must have in their mind at all times.

I close, Presiding Officer, by saying—

The Deputy Presiding Officer (John Scott): Yes—you must close now.

Stewart Stevenson: I encourage Lord Gill and his successors to think about recalibrating their relationship with Parliament. However, when my colleague Joan McAlpine talked about being a journalist, I immediately reflected that journalists are entitled to, and properly do—

The Deputy Presiding Officer: You really must close.

Stewart Stevenson: —keep their sources secret. Therefore, not everything can be in the public domain. Ultimately, we have to choose the right people. We have to trust them, and we have to treat them extremely harshly if that trust is not fulfilled.

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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