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INTERESTS INTERVENE: First Minister joins top judge in bid to block register of judicial interests as MSPs consider recalling Legal Affairs Minister over dodgy evidence & private meeting with Lord Gill

11 May

First Minister claims register for judges interests is ‘unworkable’ SCOTLAND’S First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has joined Scotland’s outgoing top judge in a bid to block increased judicial accountability & transparency with the creation of a register of interests for judges.

The surprise move by the country’s most senior politician comes amid fears the judicial transparency proposal currently being considered by MSPs will expose the secret links between big money, big business, offshore private banking, staggering property wealth and Scotland’s mega powerful & secretive judiciary.

The First Minister also repeated claims made by Lord President Lord Brian Gill (73) – who accused “aggressive media” and  court users in an attempt to thwart the Scottish Parliament probe into why judges are so secretive about their vast wealth and connections.

MSPs on the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee are due to debate plans to create a register of judicial interests as called for in Petition PE1458: Register of Interests for members of Scotland’s judiciary tomorrow, Tuesday 12 May 2015.

The proposals – under investigation by MSPs since January 2013 – call for 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.

The petition has cross party support from msps who backed a motion urging the Scottish Government to create a register of judicial interests at Holyrood on 7 October 2014 – reported along with video footage and the official record, here: Debating the Judges.

The latest, surprise intervention by the First Minister in the bid to bring transparency to Scotland’s secretive judges only came to light last week – although Ms Sturgeon’s letter is dated 30 March.

In the letter, which gives the First Minister’s view of petitions relating to justice issues – Nicola Sturgeon also revealed Legal Affairs Minister Paul Wheelhouse had a secret meeting with Lord Gill to discuss the petition in February of this year.

Writing in the letter to John Pentland MSP, Convener of the Public Petitions Committee, the First Minister said: “This petition calls on the Scottish Government to create a Register of Interests for the Judiciary. The Scottish Government considers that such a register of judicial interests is not necessary and that the existing safeguards – the Judicial Oath, the Statement of Principles of Judicial Ethics and the system for complaints against the judiciary – are sufficient. These safeguards, together with the register of judicial recusals, are sufficient to protect individuals from judicial bias.”

“Further to the evidence that the Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs, Mr Wheelhouse, gave to the Committee on 9 December 2014, he discussed this petition when he met the Lord President in February. The Minister acknowledged the Lord President’s concerns about the introduction of a register of judicial interests. The breadth of such a register would make it virtually unworkable. It would need to cover not only financial interests, but also memberships of groups and associations and familial and social relationships. Even so, such a register might not capture relevant issues that could arise.”

“The position of the judiciary is different from that of MSPs and others who hold public office. The judiciary cannot publicly defend themselves. The Lord President has cautioned that such a register could also have unintended consequences. Consideration requires to be given to judges’ privacy and freedom from harassment by aggressive media or hostile individuals, including dissatisfied litigants. In addition, there is currently no evidence that judges who should have recused themselves from cases have not done so.”

The First Minister’s letter is an almost word for word quote from previous letters written by Lord Gill who has previously blasted msps on the Petitions Committee foreven to dare to consider the issue of increased transparency of the judiciary.

And, following what some have referred to as a ‘script’ written by Lord Gill – the First Minister’s letter is dated two days before the latest 1 April letter from the top judge to the Petitions Committee.

Lord Gill has previously claimed such a register could compromise judges’ privacy by encouraging “aggressive media or hostile individuals” and that “The establishment of such a register therefore may have the unintended consequence of eroding public confidence in the judiciary.”

Gill also refused three invitations to appear at the Scottish Parliament and take questions on his hostility towards judicial transparency and a register of judges’ interests.

The surprise letter from Nicola Sturgeon supporting the elderly top judge – who has been caught in headlines flying around the world on grand 5 day taxpayer funded state visits to countries such as Qatar – predates Lord Gill’s announcement of his ‘retirement’ last week.

Having served three years as Lord President – the shortest term in the post for some time, the ageing Gill said he is stepping down at the end of this month.

The latest development in the debate around creating a register of interests for judges comes as MSPs were handed a copy of internal Scottish Government communications which conflict with testimony previously given to the Public Petitions Committee by Legal Affairs Minister Paul Wheelhouse.

The emails reveal Mr Wheelhouse deliberately misled MSPs over claims gangsters had threatened SEPA officials – claims which wheelhouse used to argue with MSPs at an earlier evidence session that judges wealth and connections to big business, banks and the legal profession must be kept hidden.

Conversations between aides to Mr Wheelhouse begging SEPA for examples of evidence for “the Minister to have in his back pocket” revealed no gangster threats had occurred. Instead, a farmer threatened a SEPA employee with a stick, and a fence had been pushed against another SEPA employee.

The now released email also raises questions on what knowledge the then Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill knew of the material used by Wheelhouse – after MacAskill – who is now on the Petitions Committee – failed to question the Minister during his interaction with Wheelhouse at a previous Petitions Committee meeting, reported here: Too Many Secrets: Legal Affairs Minister Paul Wheelhouse substitutes for top judge in evidence to MSPs

MacAskill – a lawyer who trained at Glasgow based law firm of Levy & Mcrae who are now caught up in a multi million pound writ over the £400m collapse of Hedge Fund Heather Capital – is known to be against the plan to create a register of interests for judges.

MSPs on the Petitions Committee have now been asked to recall Mr Wheelhouse to account for his misleading testimony, and to face questions on his private meeting with Lord Gill.

It has also been suggested Moi Ali – Scotland’s first Judicial Complaints Reviewer (JCR) be recalled to give evidence on changes relating to judicial conduct complaint rules put forward by Lord Gill. The changes have been branded tweaks & window dressing in a previous report here: THE LORD’S RULES: Top judge’s two year consultation & tweaks to rules allowing judges to investigate themselves is ‘missed opportunity’.

During an earlier evidence session before the Scottish Parliament’s Petitions Committee, Moi Ali told msps there is little transparency or accountability in Scotland’s judiciary.

Among papers released for tomorrow’s meeting, clerks have now recommended MSPs seek information from legal affairs Minister Wheelhouse on what took place at the secret meeting with Gill held in February and also to recommend Gillian Thompson OBE – the new Judicial Complaints Reviewer who replaced Moi Ali last year, attend to give evidence.

Gillian Thompson has already registered her support for a register of judicial interests in a letter to MSPs, reported here: DECLARE THE JUDGES: New Judicial Complaints Reviewer supports proposal to Scottish Parliament to create a register of interests for judges

The Sunday Herald newspaper reported on First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s intervention on behalf of the judiciary and her opposition to the judicial transparency proposal:

First Minister rejects call for register of judges’ interests

Paul Hutcheon
Investigations Editor Sunday 10 May 2015

NICOLA Sturgeon has rejected calls for judges to declare details of their finances in a register of interest. The First Minister said the proposal, lodged by justice campaigner Peter Cherbi, was “not necessary” and claimed existing rules were “sufficient”.

Holyrood’s Public Petitions Committee is in the middle of a long-term probe into whether judges, sheriffs and justices of the peace should be brought into line with other senior public sector figures.

MSPs, MPs, councillors and board members of public bodies are all required to register their outside financial interests.

A petition lodged with the Scottish Parliament in 2012 called for members of the judiciary to declare their “pecuniary” interests, which would include shareholdings, directorships and membership of external bodies.

Judicial officer holders can recuse – or remove – themselves if a conflict of interest arises during a case, but nothing more is required.

The plan was met with hostility by the country’s top judge, Lord Gill, who repeatedly snubbed calls by the committee to give oral evidence. He relied on written testimony to blast a proposal he said could compromise judges’ privacy by encouraging “aggressive media or hostile individuals”.

Lord Gill concluded: “The establishment of such a register therefore may have the unintended consequence of eroding public confidence in the judiciary.”

The issue has now reached the desk of the First Minister, who has backed Lord Gill.

In a letter to John Pentland MSP, the Committee convener, she supported the status quo: “The Scottish Government considers that such a register of judicial interests is not necessary and that the existing safeguards – the Judicial Oath, the Statement of Principles of Judicial Ethics and the system for complaints against the judiciary – are sufficient.

“These safeguards, together with the register of judicial recusals, are sufficient to protect individuals from judicial bias.”

She also repeated Lord Gill’s fear about “aggressive media” and noted: “The position of the judiciary is different from that of MSPs and others who hold public office. The judiciary cannot publicly defend themselves.”

The First Minister also revealed that Paul Wheelhouse, her Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs, met Lord Gill in December to discuss the petition.

In his evidence to the Committee, Wheelhouse said he feared a register could leave judges open to “threats or intimidation”, adding that colleagues at an environment quango had already been threatened by organised criminals. However, emails between the Government and Scottish Environment Protection Agency revealed no link to organised crime.

Cherbi said: “I am surprised Nicola Sturgeon supports a judicial ban on transparency just because judges have been asked to declare their substantial interests. “We are always told if you have got nothing to hide you have nothing to fear. What are the judges hiding and what do they fear? “There cannot be one set of rules for judges and another for everyone else. A register of interests will enhance public trust in the justice system, not detract from it.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government considers that a specific register of interests is not needed. Existing safeguards, including the Judicial Oath, the Statement of Principles of Judicial Interests and the system of complaints against the judiciary, are sufficient to ensure the impartiality of the judiciary 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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