Bird charity link Sheriff stands down in wildlife crime case IN what is the first detailed recusal of a Scottish judge published by the Judiciary of Scotland, a Sheriff has recused herself and stood down from a wildlife crime court case involving a man accused of killing birds of prey – after the sheriff disclosed she is a member of the charity the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).
During a pre-trial hearing, Sheriff Annella Cowan mentioned she was a member of the RSPB – an interest which would have to be publicly disclosed in proposals being considered by the Scottish Parliament to create a register of judges interests - Petition PE1458: Register of Interests for members of Scotland's judiciary.
Details of the case, heard at Aberdeen Sheriff Court last week reveal George Mutch, of Kildrummy, was due to stand trial accused of recklessly killing or injuring two goshawks and a buzzard by using traps. The 48-year-old who denies the offences faces four charges and is claimed to have carried out the offences at Kildrummy Estate, near Alford in Aberdeenshire, between August 6 and September 13 in 2012. The trial was adjourned until later this year.
Representing the accused, Defence counsel Mark Moir argued that Sheriff Annella Cowan should recuse herself from the case because she had mentioned during a pre-trial hearing that she was a member of the RSPB bird charity.
Mr Moir argued that the sheriff should stand down from presiding over the trial because the RSPB had been involved in the criminal investigation against his client.
He said: "Your Ladyship in this specific trial will require to determine whether or not investigators who are members of the RSPB are credible or reliable and you will also have to decide whether Mr Mutch is credible or reliable."
He added that if it was the case that the sheriff had paid membership fees to the charity the money could have been used to fund criminal investigations of this type.
Mr Moir stressed that he was not suggesting that the sheriff would be biased but said there could be an appearance of bias now that her RSPB membership had been mentioned and the fact was in the public domain.
Sheriff Cowan considered the lawyer's arguments for her to recuse herself from the case and decided she would stand down. The sheriff said she had taken no offence, insisting that it was more important that justice was seen to be done.
The public petition calling for a register of interests for Scotland’s judiciary, under consideration by msps since early 2013, has brought about a significant change in the justice system where Scotland’s top judge, Lord President & Lord Justice General Brian Gill reached a deal with msps and undertook to publish a list of recusals of Scottish judges as they occurred.
The current publication of recusals can be found on the Judiciary of Scotland’s website here: Judicial Recusals
Sheriff Cowan’s recusal has been published by the Judiciary of Scotland in the following terms: 22 October 2014 Aberdeen Sheriff Court Sheriff Cowan (Criminal) Evidence and witnesses from RSPB, of which Sheriff is a member
Since the publication of recusals began in April of this year, court users and legal agents have became more aware of the significant interests of Scotland’s judges which could conflict with cases heard in courts. Publication of the recusal data has strengthened both litigants and legal representatives resolve to put recusal issues to Scottish judges, who are still left to decide on their own whether they should recuse or not.
Petition PE1458 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.
What has not been disclosed so far by Scotland’s judges is their copious involvement with the hunting, shooting & fishing fraternity – an issue which will be of significant interest to those campaigning to conserve wildlife, and ensure wildlife crime cases are correctly taken forward in the courts.
Many members of the Scottish judiciary have memberships of, financial interests in, or other links to local shooting syndicates, shooting estates, fishing rights etc – all issues which would be required to be disclosed in a register of interests for Scotland’s judiciary.
It is also a well known fact others in the justice system frequent estates and stretches of fishing rights such as areas where in one recent case, a family of otters were found dead in a trap, reported by BBC News here Otters found dead in illegal net in River Tyne. While the net in which the otters became trapped is alleged to be designed to catch crayfish, the proximity of salmon rivers and suggestions the otters were eating away at the profits of fishing rights owners cannot be ignored.
Those with an interest in wildlife crime cases involving Birds of Prey can find out more from Raptor Persecution Scotland. Anyone who witnesses incidents of wildlife crime or has knowledge of those involved in it should report the matter to Police Scotland, and the media.
Previous articles on the lack of transparency within Scotland’s judiciary, investigations by Diary of Injustice into the undeclared interests of Scottish judges 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