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 opening speech given by Graeme Pearson MSP (South Scotland, Scottish Labour).
Graeme Pearson (South Scotland) (Lab): I will make some general comments before addressing some of the key issues in the motion. We persistently discuss the need to deliver a fair, just and transparent system, not only of government but of public law and administration. In that context, I welcome the petition from Peter Cherbi to the Public Petitions Committee.
I commend, too, David Stewart and the members of his committee for taking seriously the content of the petition and for recommending that we discuss it in public here in the chamber. The petition raises issues that cause concern in the world generally, and which can cause concern to some of our constituents. Many of us will have received comments from constituents displaying reservations about their dealings with the courts and sometimes raising issues.
Furthermore, I welcome the opportunity to celebrate publicly the integrity of our judiciary. In my involvement with the judiciary over the years, I have been impressed by the nature of the work that it does and the solemnity with which it approaches its difficult tasks. That said—as was referred to earlier—Moi Ali, the former Judicial Complaints Reviewer, made fairly strident comments in connection with her work. She indicated that she felt that she had no power to make things different and better. It is worth our while to consider for a moment that although Parliament should not always seek to deal with problems that are identified, sometimes it is our duty to deal with the perception that there is a problem in order to ensure that, in the years ahead, we demonstrate fairness and transparency in all that we try to achieve on behalf of citizens.
Lord Gill indicated that he saw no point in introducing a register of interests for members of Scotland’s judiciary. He said that he relied on a judge recusing him or herself if they identified a perceived or actual bias. That places extreme pressure on a judge, before the commencement of proceedings, to examine their soul and consider all possible circumstances.
Until the petition was discussed, there was no knowledge of recusals in the public domain. I welcome the fact that, as of April this year, the Lord President has introduced a register of recusals. It is fair to say that without the petition and the work of the Public Petitions Committee, such a register would probably not have been considered.
Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):
Would the member agree that the welcome addition of the register of recusers will help us in the future to understand the nature and scope of the ways in which judges have to stand down? I suspect that it might show us that financial considerations are the least of it. However, until we see the results, that is speculation, and merely a personal opinion.
I am sure that the viewpoint that Mr Stevenson has expressed is right. I doubt that financial considerations will figure because, all too often—certainly in the media and the contents of postbags—it is about people’s perceptions of judges belonging to various groups and associations. I would not seek to indicate which groups and associations, because that would merely create heat instead of light. Nevertheless, the perception that those on the bench are in some way influenced by their various connections creates concern among the general public and elements of the press.
My approach has always been that it is sometimes better to be up front in those matters and to record things in a register, even although people will lose an element of privacy. I understand the threat that may attach to that in the pressures that judges could face in the future, and wonder whether there is a way in which we could, once we have given some thought to the matter, create a register that would not be used by those who would be vexatious to attack or pursue our judiciary, but would give us confidence that our courts operate for the best outcomes for the future.
I look forward to hearing what other members have to say on the subject.
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