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 speech given by John Wilson MSP (Central Scotland) (Independent). John Wilson is a member of the Public Petitions Committee, and is the Deputy Convener of the Local Government & Regeneration Committee. Mr Wilson is also a member of a number of Cross Party Groups in the Scottish Parliament.
John Wilson (Central Scotland) (Ind): The petition and today’s debate highlight the important role that the Public Petitions Committee plays in this Parliament.
The issue under discussion is an easy and relatively straightforward subject, as many members have said. The resistance to having a general register of judicial interests seems, to my mind and to many others, to come from ingrained conservative forces, and I am clearly not talking about Mr Carlaw in this instance. However, his impersonation of one of his colleagues may highlight the conservative nature of the legal profession.
The Public Petitions Committee has attempted to engage in a positive manner with all those identified by the petition. The same cannot be said of all those who have had an input on the public record. The Lord President, Lord Gill, declined to accept the committee’s invitation to give evidence in respect of the petition on the ground of “constitutional principle”, with particular reference to section 23(7) of the Scotland Act 1998. Although that might be considered by some to be a reasonable response, it is undermined by the fact that Lord Gill has appeared before other committees of this Parliament.
In principle, there is good practice taking place in Scotland. Elected members such as councillors and members of this Parliament have to make undertakings in their own registers of interests, so why there is a lack of positive engagement is essentially a mystery to me, especially as the then Judicial Complaints Reviewer, Ms Moi Ali, supported the petition both in correspondence and in excellent oral evidence to the Public Petitions Committee.
We already know, because it has been reported widely, that arrangements to publish details of the shareholdings of those on the Scottish Court Service board are in place, and I welcome the information that was discussed earlier relating to recusal by sheriffs and judges in cases on which they have decided that they cannot sit in judgment.
Lord Justice Neuberger, president of the UK Supreme Court, said in a speech on 26 August 2014 to the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club:
“The rule of law also requires the honest, fair, efficient and open dispensation of justice. And therefore there is no hope for the rule of law unless we have judges who are independent, honest, fair, and competent, and who are seen to be independent, honest, fair, and competent.”
Clearly, we must ask why we cannot have a register. No doubt the associated media coverage of Lord Gill’s non-appearance at the Public Petitions Committee has led to him being given the title of Lord No-No. That is not something that I particularly welcome, although, quite frankly, it seems to have a degree of merit for an individual who spent six days in Qatar to give a speech about transparency and judicial regulation that lasted one hour, but who could not find the courtesy to accept an invitation from a mandatory committee of this Parliament.
I welcome the opportunity to raise awareness of the petition and of the petitioner’s work in relation to it, which could be dismissed by some unkind types as a boring constitutional matter. However, as others have said in today’s debate, linking it to registers of interest in other areas clearly highlights the work that the Parliament must do to ensure that everyone, no matter who the public are dealing with, is held in high regard. A register of interests for judges is an area in which we could move forward and build more confidence in the system that we have in place.
In the final paragraph of the speech that Lord Gill gave in Qatar, he said:
“One drawback of a jurisdiction steeped in tradition is its slow reaction to change and to modernise.”
Lord Gill should reread his own words and reflect on that speech, and maybe he could give the same speech in Scotland and bring the judicial system up to a standard that we would all like it to hold.
The petition clearly highlights the work of the Public Petitions Committee, and I look forward to more challenging petitions being heard by the committee and debated in the chamber.
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