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READ THE SHRED: Scottish Government request destruction of FOI papers – Files reveal Ministers silence on judicial complaints & civil servants attempts to exclude case histories from Judicial Investigator’s annual reports

28 Jul

No JCR annual reports in 3 years. FILES RELEASED by the Scottish Government reveal Scotland’s Judicial Complaints Reviewer (JCR) took an undisclosed decision in 2016 not to publish annual reports on complaints about alleged judicial misconduct, while civil servants agreed further annual reports could be watered down.

The documents – obtained under the Freedom of Information act reveal a three year silence on annual reporting of complaints about the judiciary by Gillian Thompson OBE, who currently serves as Scotland’s Judicial Complaints Reviewer until August 31 2017.

Emails from the Scottish Government to the JCR also reveal a civil servant in the Justice Department told Ms Thompson she could water down the length of reports on her work, and did not need to include examples of cases – which had been a hallmark of previous annual reports published by Scotland’s first JCR – Moi Ali.

And, key passages of the documents provoked a storm in the media after now redacted paragraphs revealed Ms Thompson had wrongly claimed her predecessor was the source of media articles in relation to the role of the JCR – when in fact the articles reporting on a lack of annual reports from the Judicial Complaints Reviewer had been down to good journalism.

Upon the material being reported to the Scottish Government as unsuitable for publication, on the grounds there was a clear breach of Freedom of Information legislation relating to publication of comments of third parties and material likely to inhibit free & frank discussion between officials, the Scottish Government’s media team took over the handling of the matter, and demanded the documents already released to journalists be destroyed.

Stuart Lewis, Senior Media Manager for the Scottish Government’s Justice & Education hub provided an unsigned letter stating: You also brought to our attention the remarks made on page 28 of the pdf document. These remarks were made by a third party and do not reflect or represent the views of the Scottish Government. On reflection, those remarks should also have been considered to be personal data.

This was an oversight which we take seriously. We will circulate guidance across the Justice Directorate for use in responding to future FOI requests and specifically about redaction of personal information including personal data.

In the circumstances, we would ask you not to circulate this information any further and ask that you confirm that you have deleted/destroyed the information. We have included a redacted copy of the information for publication which excludes this personal data.

We are very grateful to you for drawing this matter to our attention and for giving us the opportunity to address it before you publish our response.

The initial release of documents from the Scottish Government were subsequently destroyed. However, what became clear from the release of information was that exemptions of disclosure which supposedly protect “free and frank discussions” between civil servants are being used to conceal potentially defamatory statements & conjecture between public servants unhappy about attention from the media on public interest issues.

The files, since released in a second cleaned up version by the Scottish Government, also reveal major changes appear to have been planned for the way in which JCR annual reports were to be published, after an email from an unidentified Scottish Government civil servant informed Gillian Thompson there was no need to refer to actual cases in her annual report.

An excerpt from an email, dated 8 September 2015 reads: “We look forward to receiving your Annual Report in due course and agree that there is no need for this to be a lengthy document, nor to include examples of cases.”

An excerpt from a letter, dated 3 October 2016 reveals the decision taken by Ms Thompson against publishing annual reports – despite a Ministerial direction obtained by Ms Thompson’s predecessor to ensure the public found out about the work of the Judicial Complaints Reviewer.

An extract from a letter from Gillian Thompson to Neil Rennick, Director of the Scottish Government’s Justice Department reads: From the beginning of my tenure I have prioritised the reviews requested by those who believe that their complaint has not been handled by the Judicial Office for Scotland in line with the relevant Rules. It took me well into 2015 to clear the backlog I inherited and the reviews that came to me in the first 6 months.

My view is that the role of the JCR is to provide the service available within the narrowly drawn legislation as efficiently and effectively as possible given the constraints, including the time constraints.

I have always viewed the preparation of a report on activity and effort as second order. My contract refers to a responsibility to “as directed by Scottish Ministers to prepare and publish reports on investigations”. The wording implies that a direction will be given and does not specify what should be reported or when.

I confess that whilst I have accepted that what is meant is to follow Moi Ali’s example I have not attached the same level of importance to providing a report as she did. [REDACTED]

I have not produced a report for 2015 or 2016. The interest also suggests that producing one report followed closely by another will mean that I will have to divert available time to handling the fallout after each rather than undertaking reviews

Early in October I said that I would put aside casework and concentrate on drafting reports. As of this letter I have 7 reviews outstanding and there may be more once I go to VQ tomorrow. I think that for me to feel that I am providing the level of service that complainants are entitled to expect I have to revert to case handling.

I have decided, therefore, that I will conflate the reports and produce an end of term/tenure report in August 2017.

This decision was not announced in public, or on the Judicial Complaints Reviewer’s website.

A further scrutiny of the FOI released documentation also reveals attempts at ‘information management’ in response to enquiries on the role of the JCR, where civil servants suggest Gillian Thompson take the same line as Scottish Government in response to an MSP’s enquiry.

A redacted email from a civil servant in the Scottish Government’s Justice Department to Gillian Thompson reads: “The line that we intend to take in the response to the MSP enquiry is that certain arrangements were set up for the previous JCR. However, these have been comprehensively reviewed and we are in the process of changing over to more secure arrangements – having been maintained on a transitional basis as you inherited the office to maintain continuity. Could we take this line with [redacted] and you could respond from your SCOTS account to avoid any further Gmail related criticism? You might say that you can’t currently gain access to the correspondence on the old Gmail account as it’s in the process of being changed over.”

An issue which does stand out from much of the discussions between Gillian Thompson and the Scottish Government, is the lack of any communication with two Lord Presidents, Lord Gill, and his successor Lord Carloway on the subject of the missing JCR annual reports.

Not one document or communication from an anxious Lord President or Judicial Office exists in the FOI release, provoking questions why the judiciary were keen not to enquire as to why no annual reports were being produced by the Judicial Complaints Reviewer for the past three years.

As things currently stand, the only annual reports from the Judicial Complaints Reviewer which currently exist are those written by Moi Ali, Scotland’s first JCR.

Diary of Injustice has previously published the JCR annual reports authored by Moi Ali, here: Judicial Complaints Reviewer Scotland Annual Report 2011-2012, Judicial Complaints Reviewer Scotland Annual Report 2012-2013 and Judicial Complaints Reviewer Scotland Annual Report 2013-2014

The Sunday Herald reported on the release of documentation and the Scottish Government’s request files be destroyed, here:

Cover-up row after government asks writer to destroy watchdog letter released under FOI

Paul Hutcheon Investigations Editor 9 July 2017

THE Scottish Government is at the centre of a cover up row after asking a journalist to destroy a document released under freedom of information laws.

Civil servants provided a letter showing that Judicial Complaints Reviewer (JCR) Gillian Thompson had wrongly claimed her predecessor may have been behind a media story about her.

Days later, the Government stated: “We would ask you not to circulate this information any further and ask that you confirm that you have deleted/destroyed the information.”

In 2016, the Sunday Herald revealed that Thompson, whose role includes examining whether complaints against judges were handled properly, had not published an annual report since taking up the job.

This was in contrast to the previous post-holder Moi Ali, who had fought for the right to publish a yearly account of her annual activity in the job.

Peter Cherbi, who publishes a blog on legal issues, asked the Scottish Government for all communications and discussions with the JCR going back several years.

In a letter to Scottish Government Justice Director Neil Rennick, dated October 2016, Thompson wrote: “I have always viewed the preparation of a report on activity and effort as second order.”

She added: “I confess that whilst I have accepted that what is meant is to follow Moi Ali’s example I have not attached the same level of importance to providing a report as she did.”

Thompson then inaccurately stated that Ali may have had a role in the story about her not publishing an annual report: “Indeed if our difference of view needed highlighting, on one reading of the recent [Sunday] Herald article, she seems to have been a source in outing the fact that I have not produced a report for 2015 or 2016.”

After receiving the letter, Cherbi got an email from the Government which tried to backtrack on this part of the freedom of information release.

Addressing Thompson’s comment, the Government stated: “These remarks were made by a third party and do not reflect or represent the views of the Scottish Government. On reflection, those remarks should also have been considered to be personal data. This was an oversight which we take seriously.”

Cherbi told this newspaper: “As a journalist I am concerned about being asked by the Scottish Government to destroy material which clearly the public have a right to know given the matter at hand – transparency and accountability of the judiciary and courts.

“Moi Ali as JCR was and remains a staunch supporter of judicial transparency. She was very attentive as JCR, produced annual reports, gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament, stood up to an overbearing judiciary and went so far as to ask for more powers for the JCR role.”

Ali said: “I was categorically not the source of this media coverage about the JCR, and only provided a reactive, on-the-record response to the Sunday Herald. I am equally disappointed that Scottish Government shared Ms Thompson’s baseless conjecture, without my knowledge, with a freelance journalist. This is not acceptable, although I accept their subsequent sincere apology for their error.

“When I wrote to Ms Thompson asking how she proposed to remedy the situation, I received a reply noting my concerns. I have now written again asking for a retraction and apology, as it is damaging to one’s reputation.”

Thompson said: “I made an observation to my lead contact in Scottish Government. I did not make it public.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Some personal data was included in error within a larger release of information requested under FOI legislation. We acted quickly to correct this as soon as it was brought to our attention. We are sorry for this breach of our standards and have apologised to those affected.”

The Sunday Mail newspaper also reported on the lack of annual reports from the Judicial Complaints Reviewer, here:

 THREE YEARS OF NOTHING

Scotland’s judicial watchdog has failed to produce a single annual report in her three years in the job.

By Mark Aitken, Political Editor Sunday Mail 2 July 2017

In 2014, Gillian Thompson was appointed Judicial Complaints Reviewer to investigate complaints by the public against judges.

Her contract ends next month – but she has so far failed to produce any annual reports.

Former civil servant Thompson replaced Moi Ali, who in her final report detailed complaints of alleged racial biogtry, bullying, lying, conflicts of interest and making secret recordings of meetings.

Legal campaigner Peter Cherbi said: “I’m a little concerned at Ms Thompson’s policy of not producing a report each year given the public expectation of being kept updated on judicial transparency and complaints about judges.

“Yet at the same time, this goes to the very heart of the lack of powers handed to the Judicial Complaints Reviewer and a significant lack of resources for one person to deal with queries and complaints against a 700-plus strong judiciary.

“It would have always been open for Ms Thompson to inform the public about the lack of resources and support for the JCR’s office.

“Moi Ali did a fine job on speaking out in office and speaking to the Scottish Parliament. If more had been said in these past three years, perhaps the JCR role could have been given greater priority with some much needed scrutiny.”

Ali was appointed as Scotland’s first JCR in 2011 but resigned in 2014 saying she got no co-operation from law chiefs.

And documents revealed under freedom of information laws show that in April, Thompson also wrote to Holyrood justice director Neil Rennick about the lack of support she received.

She said: “In looking back over my experience as JCR, I believe that the lack of any such support did have a detrimental effect on my first 18 months in office from which I seem to have never recovered.”

Another email reveals that she submitted a draft of her 2014-15 report only last November. The report has yet to be published.

In an email to Holyrood staff, Thompson wrote: “Clearly it is very late but I hope it is a reasonable read.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The priority of the Judicial Complaints Reviewer has been to ensure complaints from members of the public have been properly dealt with, which she has done.”

Previous articles on the Judicial Complaints Reviewer and complaints against Scotland’s judiciary can be found here: Judicial Complaints Reviewer – Reviewing complaints against Scotland’s judiciary

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