Scottish Parliament debate on register of judicial interests. ON Thursday 09 October 2014, the Scottish Parliament’s main chamber held a detailed ninety minute debate on calls to require judges to declare their significant financial and other interests, as called for in Petition PE1458: Register of Interests for members of Scotland's judiciary. On conclusion of the debate, MSPs overwhelmingly supported motion S4M-11078 - in the name of Public Petitions Convener David Stewart MSP on petition PE1458 and urged the Scottish Government to give further consideration to a register of interests for judges.
The public petition, submitted to the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee in late 2012 envisages 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.
In a move aimed at widening public awareness of the undisclosed interests of Scotland’s judiciary and details contained in the recent debate by MSPs at Holyrood, each day this week, Diary of Injustice is publishing the official record of the speeches given by individual MSPs who participated in the debate along with video footage.
This article focuses on the closing speech given by Roseanna Cunningham MSP (Perthshire South and Kinross-shire) (SNP). Roseanna Cunningham is the Scottish Government’s Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs.
Roseanna Cunningham: The debate has given us the opportunity to discuss issues around transparency and conflicts of interest and whether a register of judicial interests would address those matters. However, I sense that much of the debate has been about the process. Members will forgive me if I do not get too drawn into that aspect of the discussion—it is not really for me to intervene in committee procedures or the calling of witnesses. I am sure that if concerns are expressed about that they might be taken up in another place.
The debate also ranged rather more widely than the motion might have otherwise suggested. That is understandable. We have heard differing views expressed about the need for a register of judicial interests. As I said, some contributions went very widely, indeed. An exchange of views is always welcome.
We all recognise the importance of the need to ensure judicial independence, accountability and transparency. However, as I said in my opening remarks, key safeguards are already in place to ensure the judiciary’s independence and accountability. To repeat, those important safeguards are the judicial oath; the “Statement of Principles of Judicial Ethics for the Scottish Judiciary”, which was issued by the Judicial Office for Scotland in 2010; and the Judiciary and Courts (Scotland) Act 2008.The debate has given us the opportunity to put on the record that those safeguards exist.
We have seen from the debate that, if the Lord President was to introduce a register, a wide breadth of interests may need to be declared. As raised by a number of members, including Stewart Stevenson and Graeme Pearson, material relationships may in many cases be more relevant than pecuniary interests.
I think that I am right in saying that it was David Stewart who described a situation whereby a judge had to recuse himself because he had been at the same social event as one of the key lawyers in the case. I do not want to misrepresent what he said, but that is my recollection; what he said was along those lines. Frankly, if we took that approach too far, either we would have to cloister judges permanently or no cases would ever be heard, because the way in which our social relationships work in Scotland makes it almost possible to avoid that happening on a number of occasions.
I understand the minister’s point, but will she say something about the point that I have made a couple of times that we are not discussing a new issue? Before the Supreme Court, law lords registered their interests day and daily for generations. The assumption is that all this is new; the issue is not at all new.
Perhaps the member will allow me to get into my speech, because I want to return to that point.
We have also heard that the Lord President is taking action to increase transparency. The register of judicial recusals recently set up by the Scottish Court Service is an excellent example of that. Over time, that will give us a better understanding of how that process works.
I am sure that the Lord President will read the Official Report of the debate and members’ speeches with interest. I will not be drawn into a discussion of his decision about attending the committee. However, as referred to by Joan McAlpine and others—I am not quite sure if I remember who—he has warned that the introduction of a register of judicial interests could have unintended consequences. He said:
“Consideration requires to be given to judges’ privacy and freedom from harassment by ... media or ... individuals, including dissatisfied litigants.”
A point that no member has raised is that, if publicly criticised or attacked, a judicial office-holder cannot publicly defend him or herself, unlike a politician. We have the opportunity to respond to criticism; a judge would not. They do not have the same right of reply as we have.
I must ask what would be included on a register. If we are agreed that it is far less likely to be financial interests that create problems, the register would somehow have to encompass social, familiar and other relationships. A register that included those relationships would be difficult to compile. Family trees, friendships and all sorts of organisations and affiliations would have to be included. Neil Findlay seemed to suggest that even religious affiliation should be included. How on earth would one know in advance what might cause a problem in a case that was as yet unseen?
It is interesting that all members who have spoken have avoided making reference to a register in anything other than very general terms, although it is clear that it is assumed that any declaration would go beyond financial interests. I have set out some of the issues that would arise if such a register were given closer consideration.
I return to David Stewart’s point about the situation in the House of Lords prior to the creation of the United Kingdom Supreme Court. As I understand it, declarations were confined to financial interests and there was not the kind of register that members have discussed this afternoon. Furthermore, when the Supreme Court was set up in 2009, it was decided that the financial register would not be continued. Instead, a code of judicial conduct was drawn up. The register to which David Stewart referred was not analogous to the register that members have been discussing. We should understand that.
We should also take heed of the outcome of the report of the Council of Europe group of states against corruption—GRECO. I reiterate that that is an important objective assessment of where we are in relation to the judiciary in Scotland and the United Kingdom.
I am aware that other people take a different view on the need for a register. The former Judicial Complaints Reviewer thought that a register would increase transparency and public trust.
As I said, it would be for the Lord President to establish a register of interests, in his capacity as head of the Scottish judiciary. However, the Government does not consider that there is currently evidence that the existing safeguards are not effective. We do not consider that a register is necessary. Indeed, some of the issues that members have raised point us to how difficult it might be to compile the kind of register that people think might be appropriate.
A number of members referred to the register of interests of MSPs. However, the situation is different, because we are directly accountable to the electorate. That is why the register exists—and we are not required to declare religious affiliation, our circles of friends and relatives, and all the social relationships that can give rise to some of the suspicions in respect of judges.
The Deputy Presiding Officer:
I regret that I must ask you to close.
The debate has presented an opportunity to consider all the issues. I assure members that we will continue to keep the issues under review. However, our current position is that a register is not necessary.
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