Monday, February 03, 2014

MSPs gained little from Lord Gill in private meeting as Scotland’s top judge battles Holyrood call for judicial transparency & register of interests

Click to watch: little gains from Lord Gill at private meeting with MSPs. IT HAS EMERGED Scotland’s top judge, Lord Brian Gill held a private meeting with two MSPs from the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee who are currently investigating calls to create a register of judicial interests in Scotland. The meeting, of which there is now a debate about exactly what was recorded, what was left out and whether or not the Lord President objected to notes being taken at all, was discussed at last week’s Public Petitions Committee hearing on Tuesday the 28th January.

AND, contrary to claims of progress, discussions on what gains had emerged from the  private meeting between Gill, Petitions Committee Convener David Stewart and Deputy Convener Chic Brodie, now appear to show the Lord President led the two msps into believing a small change in how the lumbering Scottish Court IT database reports information on recusals might suffice as an improvement enabling data to be made more public even though in many cases where counsel have dared to raise the issue of a recusal, no note of what was said, or any reference has in fact been placed on the official record or within the IT database referred to during the committee’s discussions.

The situation on a further point, relating to declarations by judges Gill, Carloway, Sheriff Principal Alistair Dunlop and judicial colleagues who serve on the board of the Scottish Court Service also became murkier when it was claimed that information of this nature had come as a revelation to the msps who privately met the Lord President and would be part of an expected letter from Gill to the Petitions Committee.

However, clerks to the committee have since confirmed the information on Gill’s SCS Board disclosures, which are of a narrow focus and limited declaration, was already on the Scottish Parliament’s website and was referred to in briefing notes for the Petitions Committee months before the private meeting with Gill took place.

Sunday Herald reports:

Scotland's top judge offers tiny concession as calls grow for judicial transparency

Paul Hutcheon
Sunday 2 February 2014

SCOTLAND'S top judge, who refuses to back a register of interest for members of the judiciary, has conceded a minor reform to boost transparency.

The Lord President, currently Lord Gill, is looking at pulling together information about judges declining to rule on cases due to a perceived conflict of interest.

MSPs who have criticised the lack of openness in the judiciary welcomed the shift in direction.

Holyrood's Public Petitions Committee is considering a proposal that would require judges and sheriffs to file a register of financial interests, which could include shareholdings and directorships.

Unlike other public servants such as MPs, MSPs and quango board members, judicial office-holders do not have to give details of their outside interests.

Gill, head of the Judicial Office for Scotland, told MSPs last year there were "sufficient safeguards" in place to ensure judicial impartiality.

He added that a register could infringe a judge's "freedom from harassment" from "aggressive media or hostile individuals".

The row deepened after Gill refused to give oral evidence to the committee: MSPs cannot legally compel a judge to attend.

As a compromise, committee convener Dave Stewart MSP and his deputy Chic Brodie held a private meeting with Gill at Holyrood.

At last week's Public Petitions Committee, Stewart revealed progress had been made with Gill.

He said the senior judge, while maintaining his opposition to a register of financial interests, had promised to "check whether the IT systems can be adapted to provide aggregate information about recusals".

A recusal is when a judge takes himself off a case due to a perceived conflict of interest. No list of them exists, but Gill is looking at pulling together the information.

Stewart added that such an outcome would mean "ordinary individuals with an interest here could find out how many recusals there were across Scotland".

He said that Gill would write to MSPs with further details.

Jackson Carlaw, a Tory member of the committee, said at the meeting: "But for the belligerence of this committee in pursuing the issue, there would be no letter forthcoming, and there would be no investigation. I think it rather vindicates the tenacity with which we pursued the matter."

However, SNP MSP John Wilson, who also sits on the committee, had concerns about the private meeting.

He told the committee it "should not be in a position to hold private discussions with individuals who we ask evidence from".

Wilson also asked for the note of the meeting to be made public.

A spokeswoman for the Judicial Office for Scotland said: "The Lord President is examining whether it is possible to capture the information on formal recusal to enable it to be made public.

"The Lord President will write to the convener [Stewart] in due course and no further comment can be made at this time."


It is always welcome when senior figures in public life agree to positive change.

The Lord President, who is the country's top judge, is against requiring his colleagues to list their financial interests, but he seems to have recognised political concerns about a lack of transparency.

To this end, he is investigating the possibility of compiling a register of "recusals", which means examples of judges ceasing an interest in a court case due to a perceived conflict.

However, the concession is only a tiny step forward and does not compensate for the way the Lord President has dealt with the bigger issue over the past six months.

To recap, Holyrood’s Public Petitions Committee is considering a call for judges and sheriffs to submit a full list of their "pecuniary" interests.

Such a requirement is not unusual in the public sector, where MPs, MSPs and a host of other public servants have to provide details of shareholdings and directorships.

However, the Lord President believes the judiciary is different.

In written evidence to the committee, he argued that the disclosure of financial information could infringe a judge's privacy and encourage harassment from "aggressive media or hostile individuals".

MSPs on the committee wanted to question the Lord President about these views in person - an entirely reasonable expectation.

However, our most senior judge had other ideas and cited a little known legislative clause that means judges cannot be compelled to give parliamentary evidence.

In other words, he dodged scrutiny.

The standoff led to two MSPs on the committee holding a private meeting with Gill: out of sight, and out of mind.

It was in this context that Lord Gill made his concession.

This is clearly not an appropriate way to conduct public debate, and should prompt the government to do two things.

The first is to launch a consultation on whether legislation should be introduced requiring judges to lodge a register of interest.

The second is to open talks with the UK Government about closing the bizarre loophole that allows members of the judiciary to refuse requests to give parliamentary evidence.

Judges, like everyone else in society, are not above scrutiny.

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