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RECUSALS JUST GOT REAL: Judicial Office concedes to reforms for Judicial Recusals Register, full case details where judges stand down from court hearings to be entered after media & FOI probe success

04 Aug

Spotlight on Judiciary brings success on Recusals. SCOTLAND’S top Judge – Lord President Lord Carloway – has conceded to calls to publish full details of cases in the Register of Judicial Recusals – a publicly available register which records  instances where judges step aside in cases due to conflicts of interest.

The improvements to the register of recusals, agreed after lengthy exchanges between the Head of Governance of the Judiciary of Scotland & journalists – acknowledge the woeful lack of detail previously entered on cases, where little was given away about the case subject, litigants, points of law involved or even whether judges had refused to recuse themselves after being asked to do so.

Soon, members of the public, court users and legal representatives will be able to find out much more about why judges have stood aside in cases, the identity (where appropriate) of legal cases, litigants, case reference numbers and legal representatives – which all appear in court opinions published online by the Scottish Courts & Tribunals Service (SCTS).

The move has come about after Lord Caloway was quizzed on Judicial Recusals at a recent meeting of the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee – where it became clear recusals of judges which had occurred, were not included on the register for reasons not well explained by Lord Carloway in his responses to former Cabinet Secretary Alex Neil MSP.

Now the register is to be corrected, and all the extra information now agreed to be entered by the Judicial Office will also be backdated to the date the recusals register came into being, in April 2014 – when Lord Brian Gill created the register of recusals in response to the Scottish Parliament’s ongoing consideration of Petition PE1458: Register of Interests for members of Scotland’s judiciary.

The further publication of information revealing the identities of solicitors & law firms bold enough to challenge the judiciary and raise motions for recusals could also significantly benefit members of the public in access to justice issues, enabling clients to select a lawyer who isn’t afraid to raise questions on the appropriateness of a judge to hear a case if there are conflicts of interest which must be raised as matters for recusal.

The extra concessions from the Judicial Office – which go further than Lord Carloway indicated during his meeting with MSPs, come after journalists pursued a Freedom of Information request seeking all information contained in forms submitted in motions from legal teams & litigants for judges to step aside in court hearings.

Initially, the Judicial Office claimed it held no information on recusals other than a form for collecting information on recusals, a blank copy which was provided to journalists, who then sought a review of the refusal to release further information.

Then, writing in response to a request for a review of the Judicial Office’s earlier decision to refuse release of detail on recusals, Mr Steven D’Arcy Head of Strategy & Governance said: “Following the Lord President’s letter to the Petitions Committee, the Register of Recusals will be extended to cover instances when a judge has recused them self and when he or she has declined to do so – a copy of the this letter can be found here. The Judicial Office for Scotland has amended the guidance for SCTS staff and a copy is attached to this letter.”

The Judicial Office does hold copies of submitted recusal forms. However, when a form is submitted the information of the recusal is placed on our website. Therefore this is exempt information as you can reasonably obtain it other than by requesting it (section 25(1) of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002)).”

The form now issued by the Judicial Office for Scotland to collect recusal data lists the following information and terms:

Intimation of a Decision of Declinature (Recusal)

Declinature of jurisdiction, also referred to as recusal, refers to the act of a judicial office holder abstaining from participation in legal proceedings due to a conflict of interest or when his or her impartiality might reasonably be impugned.

The attached form  should be completed by clerks of court in the event of a formal motion for recusal being granted or refused in open court and accordingly recorded in an appropriate interlocutor.

The return should only be completed for recusals involving a senator, temporary judge, sheriff principal, sheriff or summary sheriff (this includes fee-paid members of the judiciary). It should not be completed when there has only been an informal administrative decision not to sit in a particular case.

The returns should be completed electronically and emailed to the Judicial Office for Scotland.

This information is being collated on behalf of the Lord President and this requirement should be completed accurately and timeously. Local records should be noted once the return has been submitted.

If you have any questions please contact the Judicial Office for Scotland.

The form of Intimation of a Decision of Declinature of Jurisdiction (Recusal) seeks, and records COURT (Location), DATE, NAME OF JUDGE, CASE NAME & REF, ACTION TYPE, MOTION (please select), GRANTED/REFUSED, REASON (please provide specific reasons), CLERK OF COURT, CONTACT DETAILS.

However, on analysing the form provided by the Judicial Office, it was plain there was a significant amount of information gathered by the form which was still to remain unpublished.

A series of discussions then took place between the Head of Governance at the Judicial Office & journalists pursuing the release of recusal information, which ultimately concluded in an agreement to publish all the information where appropriate.

Journalists asked: Just to confirm this information to be published will go right back to the first recusals in 2014 contained in the register of recusal archive?”

Mr D’Arcy responded: “…if it was 2014 then the answer is Yes. All case names/references that we can publish will be added to the list of recusal information on our website.”

A recent investigation by Diary of Injustice revealed instances where senior Court of Session judges have stood aside from cases were not entered into the register of recusals, for up to a year later, and then only after DOI journalists had queried the Judicial Office over the cases.

A full report on investigations into judicial recusals can be found here: Doubts over credibility of register of judges’ recusals – as Judicial Office admit court clerks failed to add details of senior judges recusals – then silently altered records a year later

During enquiries into failures to record recusals, Elizabeth Cutting, Head of Communications of the Judicial Office stood down from her post, leaving acting head Baktosch Gillan to reply to queries on why a recusal relating to Lord Bracadale had been concealed from the register of recusals for up to a year.

Responses from the Judicial Office claimed there had been a “clerical error”, a claim echoed by Lord Carloway during his attendance at the Petitions Committee where the top judge was widely criticised for his attempts to thwart increases in judicial transparency with the creation of a register of interests for Scotland’s judiciary.

The National reported on the developments to publish full details on judicial recusals in Scotland, here:

More details to be shared about judges recusing themselves from cases

Bridget Morris Journalist 31 July 2017 The National

THE register which shows when judges have stood aside from court cases because of a probable or perceived conflict of interest is to be extended and give more details to the public.

Since the Register of Recusals – the legal term for stepping aside from a case – was started by the Judicial Office for Scotland in 2014, the public has been able to read about the location of the recusal, the reason why sheriff or judges recused themselves and the name of those sheriffs and judges, but not the name of the cases or their reference numbers.

Now, after a Freedom of Information request by the legal blogger and campaigner Peter Cherbi, full details of the cases including names and reference numbers will be added to the Register of Recusals.

The Judicial Office has decided to backdate the information to the start of the register three years ago, though sensitive matters such as child protection cases will not be included in the extended release of details.

The decision, which is understood to have been made or sanctioned by Scotland’s most senior judge, Lord Carloway, the Lord President, will make accessing information on recusals much easier.

Cherbi said: “With the latest concessions offered by the Judicial Office on releasing all information with regard to recusals, this is a tacit acceptance that the content of the recusals register created by Lord Gill in early 2014 has been woefully lacking in critical detail, and has by the very lack of detail led to a register which has omitted key recusals for reasons not well explained by Lord Carloway.

“The release of case references, identities of litigants if appropriate and also, I urge, the identities of legal teams acting in such cases where recusals have been sought, gained or refused could have assisted court users and legal representatives in making a more accurate assessment of how to progress cases before judges who may have conflicts of interest which, as we have seen from recent reports do occur.”

Previous article on Judicial Recusals can be found here:  Judicial Recusals in Scotland – Cases where judges have stood down over conflicts of interest

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