Ministers secretly met judicial figures over register for judges interests. DETAILS OF what took place at a secret meeting between Scottish Minsters and the head of Scotland’s judiciary over proposals to increase transparency of the judiciary – must remain secret – says the Scottish Government – who have today blocked the release of discussions between judges and politicians in response to a Freedom of Information request.
The secret meeting between Legal Affairs Minister Paul Wheelhouse and Scotland’s now retired top judge Lord President Lord Brian Gill (73) and his aides was held in February – to discuss joint efforts between the Scottish Government and senior judicial figures to combat a long running Scottish Parliament investigation into proposals to increase transparency of the judiciary – Petition PE1458: Register of Interests for members of Scotland’s judiciary.
The existence of the secret get together between Scottish Government Ministers and judges desperate to conceal their vast and varied interests from the public – only came to light in a letter of intervention from Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee at the end of March.
Releasing only a few unrelated sentences in heavily censored documents, the Scottish Government has now claimed it is not in the public interest for their private discussions with the Lord President and his advisers on how to cover up judges vested interests – to be disclosed to the public or media.
Within the sparse details of what has now been disclosed, a picture is beginning to emerge of a concerted joint effort between the Scottish Government and the judiciary to block any moves to advance the debate on judicial transparency – with civil servants reporting back to to the Judicial Office on their efforts to thwart calls to require judges to declare their interests.
The heavily censored documents – disclosed in response to the FOI request, reads as follows:
Thank you for this. I agree that the meeting went well and your note accurately reflects what was discussed and agreed.. We will keep you advised as to how matters develop.
From: Flinn, Roddy Sent: 03 February 2015 17:32 To: [Censored] Cc: Humphreys, Steve Subject: Meeting with Mr Wheelhouse
I thought our meeting today was very helpful. I think the key points, in short summary, are these:-
We are all content with the timescales and direction of court reform, though we know we have a busy year ahead.
[Censored] [Censored] [Censored] [Censored]
Happy to discuss further, Roddy Flinn, Legal Secretary to the Lord President, The Lord President’s Private Office
Both the Scottish Government and Judiciary of Scotland are already on the record in opposing the proposal to create a publicly available register – which would see members of the public, court users, lawyers and the media all able to check out the vast wealth and connections of Scotland’s mega powerful, mega rich judges.
Scotland’s now former top judge Lord Gill refused several invitations to attend the Scottish Parliament and give evidence to MSPs, and Legal Affairs Minister Paul Wheelhouse – who also attended the secret meeting – was recently accused of misleading msps in an earlier evidence session at Holyrood held in December 2014.
The Scottish Government have now said it is not in the public interest for their ‘high quality policy and decision making’ private discussions with the judiciary on joint efforts to shut down debate around making the judiciary more transparency – to be revealed.
Jan Marshal – Deputy Director of the Justice Directorate, for the Scottish Government said: “An exemption under section 29(1)(a) of FOISA (formulation or development of government policy) applies to some of the information requested because it relates to the formulation of the Scottish Government’s policy on a range of issues including a register of judicial interests.
This exemption is subject to the ‘public interest test’. Therefore, taking account of all the circumstances of this case, we have considered if the public interest in disclosing the information outweighs the public interest in applying the exemption.
We have found that, on balance, the public interest lies in favour of upholding the exemption. We recognise that there is a public interest in disclosing information as part of open, transparent and accountable government, and to inform public debate.
However, there is a greater public interest in high quality policy and decision-making, and in the properly considered implementation and development of policies and decisions.
This means that officials need to be able to consider all available options and to debate those rigorously, to fully understand their possible implications.
Their candour in doing so will be affected by their assessment of whether the discussions on the issues will be disclosed in the near future, when it may undermine or constrain the Government’s view on that policy while lit is still under discussion and development”
The move by the Scottish Government to keep their discussions with Lord Gill secret comes after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon personally intervened in the petition, earlier in March, reported here: INTERESTS INTERVENE: First Minister joins top judge in bid to block register of judicial interests
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.
However, neither the First Minister or Paul Wheelhouse revealed any details of what took place at the meeting to MSPs who are investigating calls to create a register of interests for judges.
Writing in the letter to John Pentland MSP, Convener of the Public Petitions Committee, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon 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 judicial transparency 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.
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