Top judge Lord Gill preferred Qatar state visit to Holyrood’s questions on judicial interests. WHO would have thought Lord Brian Gill - Scotland’s ermine clad top judge - with a long ‘esteemed’ legal career, author of many a court ruling, author of the much watered down Civil Courts Review, an international emissary with an accumulated intergalactic amount of air miles, hand shaker of presidents and, yes, a church music fan, would rather travel to Qatar than appear before MSPs at the Scottish Parliament.
It happened. It is part of history.
Brian Gill (72), Scotland’s longest serving and most powerful judge became the first judge to refuse to appear before the Scottish Parliament on at least two occasions when he was summoned to attend the Public Petitions Committee and give evidence on Petition PE1458: Register of Interests for members of Scotland's judiciary.
Lord Gill’s contempt for the petition and anyone daring to question the judiciary was obvious. Transparency – in his world – is a NO-NO.
After all, what would happen to the courts if it became public that members of the judiciary have secret criminal convictions – some even for fraud, and held vast undeclared multi-million pound property portfolios, held investments in companies convicted of criminal offences at home & abroad, invested in tax avoidance schemes, earned undeclared money from law firms & big business, held secret directorships and influenced the law to the point of ensuring their own interests never became public.
You couldn’t make it up. But, here we are. It is all true. MSPs know it.The judiciary know it, and thanks to the media, the public now know it. The judiciary, are even more bankers than the bankers themselves.
As 2014 began, the concern of Scotland’s top judge was so great over the proposal being investigated by MSPs to register the vast, undeclared wealth of Scotland’s judiciary – Lord Gill and Stephen Humphries - the Chief Executive of the Judicial Office - were forced into attending a compromise backroom meeting at Holyrood with two MSPs instead of facing the full Petitions Committee in public.
There are various versions of what took place at this meeting, and what was said, or not said. Suffice to say, legal sabre rattling was in play, warnings of dire consequences if this petition went ahead. Perhaps the meeting was best summed up - as one senior Scottish Parliament insider jokingly put it – “Lord Gill appeared to levitate on a magic carpet looking down on others present”.
In fact, as legal insiders later revealed – Gill had expected MSPs to meet him in his own private court chambers in Parliament House – Gill’s own seat of power – recently lavished with £60 million of taxpayers money spent on refurbishing door knobs and a stained glass window.
However, the Scottish Parliament was wise to insist the meeting took place on it’s own turf.
Leaks from within the Scottish Courts Service pointed to Gill agreeing to the meeting out of fear the ‘top judge’ may be asked a question in public he may have to refuse to answer.
What a spectacle that would make. Scotland’s much vaunted top judge – a pillar of the establishment - being asked by MSPs about the interests of his colleagues – only to refuse to reply.
But let’s not stop there.
Lord Gill clearly is not a friend to transparency, or a believer in a free press.
An edict issued by Gill during the summer on media access to the courts laid down the law, and threatened to kick journalists out of courtrooms if the media did not play ball. It was clear from the top judge – the courts, and judiciary are out of bounds for the press.
Gill threw around various accusations in the edict, yet none of them stuck. Court Service employees were forced to deny most of it, even the insinuations of data protection breaches. How embarrassing for a top judge.
Then, there was an ill fated attempt to leak some material in the hopes of giving Gill and his out of control Judicial Office – a leg up. Big fail.
As the year marched on, it was revealed our top judge Lord Gill travelled to Qatar on a five day state visit, paid for by taxpayers.
During Brian’s travels around Qatar – identified as a funder of Islamic State (IS) and other wars around the middle east, and the globe, Lord Gill gave a speech on judicial ethics, making sly references to how the locals back home in Scotland are kept in check and – how judges respect their own oath, written like some shopping list for a visit to a supermarket. Shocker – the much used judicial oath, is written by themselves – the judiciary.
Gill’s lavish five day trip to Qatar also included a visit to a museum full of automobilia and other old wrecks. Clearly all higher up on his list of preferred venues to a visit to Holryood and answering questions from MSPs on the vast interests of Scotland’s judiciary.
But, the good lord’s bad attitude towards transparency and the Scottish Parliament bore some fruit.
During Scotland’s first ever debate on judicial interests, which took place in the Scottish Parliament on Thursday 9 October 2014, it was clear from the outset Lord Gill’s international junkets including his caravan to Qatar, his arrogance towards transparency, accusations against the media, and how msps themselves were clobbered with Brian’s own interpretation of the Scotland Act - resulted in cross party support for the proposal to register judicial interests.
The debate saw MSPs from all parties rounded on Lord Gill and his exploits.
Independent MSP John Wilson said: “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.”
Mr Wilson continued: “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.”
Jackson Carlaw MSP, for the Scottish Conservatives, and also a member of the Public Petitions Committee even joked the Scottish Parliament should convene in Qatar to speak to Lord Gill. He said “John Wilson is absolutely right. I have here a copy of the 16-page speech that the Lord President gave in Qatar, incorporating the very issues that we addressed.Had the committee known, we could have applied to the parliamentary authorities to go to Qatar to hear the speech in person and tackle the Lord President there. If he did not come to the committee, the committee could have gone to him”
Scottish Labour MSP Neil Findlay roundly condemned Lord Gill for failing to show at Holryood, calling the judge’s attitude “an outrage”.
Neil Findlay said: “I fully support the proposal for a register of interests for members of the judiciary. After all, we have the right to know whether those who are involved in determining whether a man or woman loses their freedom have any financial, business, social, political or other relationship that could influence any decision they might make. Currently there is no compulsion to declare such an interest and we rely on what is known as the fair-minded observer test. That, to me, is wholly inadequate. Through history, we have heard allegations of religious, class, financial and political bias or of members of certain organisations being helpful to each other during trials. I can think of many industrial and other disputes that have gone to court where claims of bias and collusion have been made—and, I believe, with justification.”
“That situation has to end, and we should have a register with clear rules that leave no one in any doubt about who and what should be registered. Is it really a surprise to people that the legal establishment does not want such a register, and is it not an outrage that Lord Gill had such contempt for this Parliament that he refused to attend a particular meeting? Does that not make people even more suspicious of his motives?”
It was clear. MSPs understood the arguments. Judges should declare, and declare all of it, not some of it.
MSPs overwhelmingly supported motion S4M-11078 - in the name of Public Petitions Convener David Stewart MSP on petition PE1458, urging the Scottish Government to give further consideration to a register of interests for judges. The parliamentary debate was reported here: TRANSPARENCY TIME: Top judge & Scottish Government told to rethink refusal on declarations of judges as Holyrood MSPs support calls to create a register of judicial interests
Since the debate in October, we have witnessed the spectacle of Paul Wheelhouse – the new Minister for Community Safety & Legal Affairs and his ‘evidence’ to the Public Petitions Committee. MSPs, apart from struggling Kenny MacAskill, did not buy into Mr Wheelhouse’s reasoning against transparency – probably because the Minister sounded like he was using the scrubbed drafts of Lord Gill’s more menacing letters to MSPs warning transparency cannot be accepted by the judiciary.
And, what of Lord Gill? Scurrying around like a panicked Homer Simpson (or perhaps Grandpa Simpson), he is doubtless planning some new diplomatic trip to a far flung country, perhaps his next judicial move against transparency and any talk of reforming Scotland’s closed shop, ultra expensive, ultra inaccessible and rather dodgy – justice system. Not a very fitting legacy for Scotland’s longest serving judge.
Anyway, that was the year that was. 2014. We found out Qatar and junkets are far more important to rich, secretive judges, than accounting for their interests. More to come in 2015.