Saturday, August 29, 2015

JUDGE JET: Sheriffs’ £15K tour of Africa adds to air miles racket of Scots judiciary - as top judges' clampdown on judicial jet set junkets takes flight

Judges’ use of overseas junkets in the dock. A CLAMPDOWN on judicial jet set junkets announced by Scotland’s top judge last October has failed to curb the ever spiralling jet set habits of the judiciary - it can be revealed.

Figures released by the Judicial Office in response to a Freedom of Information request - report the costs of Overseas travel of Scottish judges in 2014-2015 has in fact – increased – from the previous year (2013-2014) – which saw Scots judges take lavish 5 day judicial junkets to international destinations including middle eastern dictatorships.

And the frequency of flights & journeys suggest Scotland’s judiciary are still clocking up air miles regardless of spending cuts across other public services - often at brutal expense & little gain to the justice system.

The latest list of overseas travel – which the Judicial Office claim is necessary for judges to share their understanding of the law and court processes – also includes a five day junket for three Sheriffs who travelled to Africa.

The taxpayer funded £15,000 junket to Zambia - paid for Sheriff Gordon Liddle, Sheriff Lindsay Wood and Sheriff Michael Fletcher to attend a five-day conference hosted by the Commonwealth Magistrates' and Judges' Association. The event was held at a hotel by the Victoria Falls and ended with a sunset cruise on the Zambezi.

Speeches at the five day event included "building public confidence through judicial accountability" and "identifying and eliminating corruption in the legal system".

The latest revelations of judges taking taxpayer funded trips to ‘law conferences’ & river tours emerged after last year’s investigation by the Scottish Sun newspaper which revealed Scotland's top judges spent £26,000 on thirty three international trips funded by taxpayers - including journeys to destinations such as Russia, Israel, Switzerland,Germany, France, Bulgaria, Lithuania.

The now retired top judge Lord Gill – who has yet to respond to a third invitation requesting his appearance at the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee  to answer questions from msps on judges undeclared wealth & interests - also jetted off on a five day state visit to Qatar during 2014.

Last April, Gill (73) gave a sixteen page speech on ‘judicial ethics’ in the Gulf Emirate of Qatar – a country which stands accused of multiple breaches of human rights, using slave labour and funding terrorism & war.

Asked for further details of Lord Gill’s itinerary in Qatar, a spokesperson for the Judiciary of Scotland said no information could be provided. The Judicial Office claimed there were no photographs or video footage of Lord Gill’s trip to Qatar, even though the trip was paid for by the taxpayer.

In response to media scrutiny of judicial air junkets and mentions in the Scottish Parliament, top judge Brian Gill announced a crackdown on overseas trips made by judges.

The Lord President issued an edict on judicial jet junkets, setting out new rules stating judges would have to make a written business case for clocking up more air miles via taxpayers cash.

However, as total figures for this year reveal, the cost of flying the highly secretive, wealthy & elderly Scottish judges around the globe at taxpayers expense surpassed last year’s £30K figures – and this is only for trips admitted to by the Judicial Office and the Scottish Courts & Tribunals Service.

Overseas travel of Scottish judges in 2014-2015:

Listed by: Date, Judicial Office Holder, Reason for Trip & Destination, Cost, Expenses Claimed, Total Cost.
15-18 May 2014  Lord Eassie EAJ Conference in Larnaca   £731.53   £0.00  £731.53
10-13 June 2014  Lord Tyre  ENCJ General Assembly of the ENCJ in Rome  £984.00  £110.90  £1,094.90
10-13 June 2014  Sheriff Normand  ENCJ General Assembly of the ENCJ in Rome  £945.16  £65.00  £1,010.16
21-28 June 2014  Lord Carloway  ISCRCL Conference Vancouver in Canada  £1,885.28   £39.00  £1,924.28
21-28 June 2014  Sheriff McFadyen  ISCRCL Conference Vancouver in Canada  £1,408.31 £0.00  £1,408.31
Jan 14 - June 14  ENCJ Reimbursement -£150.10  -£150.10
Jan 14 - June 14  ENCJ Reimbursement  -£298.00  -£298.00
07 - 11 September 2014  Sheriff M Fletcher CMJA Council meeting and Conference in Zambia £4,624.74  £290.53  £4,915.27
07 - 11 September 2014  Sheriff G Liddle CMJA Council meeting and Conference in Zambia  £4,810.77  £45.78  £4,856.55
07 - 11 September 2014  Sheriff L Wood  CMJA Council meeting and Conference in Zambia  £4,998.30  £119.68  £5,117.98
18-19 September 2014  Lord Tyre  ENCJ project group meeting in Madrid  £336.74  £95.39  £432.13
21 - 23 September 2014  Lord Turnbull  Judicial and Academic visit in Luxembourg  £384.30    £0.00    £384.30
21 - 23 September 2014  Lord Burns Judicial and Academic visit in Luxembourg  £384.00  £0.00  £384.00
13 October 2014  Lord Tyre ENCJ project group meeting - The Hague, Netherlands  £468.01 £82.88  £550.89
16 - 17 October 2014  Lord Brailsford  Judges seminar in Antwerp  £782.27  £0.00  £782.27
17 - 19 November 2014  Lady Rae  Judges Forum in Luxembourg  £270.74  £0.00  £270.74
17 - 19 November 2014  Lord Bannatyne  Judges Forum in Luxembourg  £299.97  £0.00    £299.97
1-2 December 2014  Lord Tyre  ENCJ Project Independence & Accountability 1-2 December 2014- Brussels  £488.04  £70.25  £558.29
08 December 2014  Sheriff Liddle  ENCJ Project group meeting in Dublin £183.19  £0.00  £183.19
Sept 14 - Dec 14  ENCJ Reimbursement -£284.54  -£284.54
25-26 January 2015  Lord Tyre ENCJ Expert Group meeting in Brussels  £487.25  £75.50  £562.75
29 - 31 January 2015  Lord Turnbull ECHR- Strasbourg on behalf of the LP  £847.90  £0.00  £847.90
11-13 February 2015  Lord Tyre  ENCJ Project Group meeting in Bucharest  £466.25  £56.09  £522.34
25-26 February 2015  Sheriff Liddle ENCJ project group meeting in Madrid  £135.25  £0.00  £135.25
23-24 March 2015  Sheriff G Liddle  ENCJ project group Committee Meeting in Amsterdam  £264.18    £7.40    £271.58
09 - 10 April 2015  Lord Tyre ENCJ - Project Group meeting, Lisbon  £452.87  £87.44  £540.31
16 - 17 April 2015  Sheriff G Liddle  ENCJ Project group Meeting in Brussels  £367.52  £0.00  £367.52

Total  for Trips: £26,273.93,  Expenses: £1,145.84,  Total Cost: £27,419.77

Dates, Traveller, Reason for Trip & Destination, Hotel & flight costs, Expenses Claimed
25-28 August 2014  Lord Carloway  Evidence Review Group meeting in Hague & Oslo  *298.26
25-28 August 2014  Lady Dorrian  Evidence Review Group meeting in Hague & Oslo       
25-28 August 2014  Sheriff Principal Scott Evidence Review Group meeting in Hague & Oslo       
25-28 August 2014  Eric McQueen  SCTS Staff  Evidence Review Group meeting in Hague & Oslo   ** £412.96
25-28 August 2014  Tim Barraclough  SCTS Staff  Evidence Review Group meeting in Hague & Oslo  *** £146.60
5 people    £3,712.37  The Hague - Hotel meeting room fees  £146.50   
Subtotals: £3,858.87,   Expenses:£857.82,  TOTAL: £4,716.69

The latest round of judicial jet set junkets was reported in the Sunday Mail newspaper:

Judges' £15,000 Zambia Junket
Fury over sheriffs' bill
By Mark Aitken, 09 August 2015 Sunday Mail

More than £15,000 of taxpayers' cash was spent on three sheriffs going on a junket to Africa - despite a clampdown on overseas trips.

Scotland's judges and sheriffs spent more than £27,000 on overseas trips in 2014-2015.

Destinations included Amsterdam, Rome, Madrid, Vancouver and Lisbon.

The most expensive trip was £14,890 for sheriffs Gordon Liddle, Lindsay Wood and Michael Fletcher to attend a five-day conference in Zambia hosted by the Commonwealth Magistrates' and Judges' Association.

Speeches included "building public confidence through judicial accountability" and "identifying and eliminating corruption in the legal system".

The event was held at a hotel by the Victoria Falls and ended with a sunset cruise on the Zambezi.

Before retiring this year as Scotland's top judge, Lord gill ordered a clampdown on overseas trips by sheriffs and judges.

But legal campaigner Peter Cherbi said: "The list of judges on the jet set circuit at taxpayers' expense does not seem to have decreased".

The Judicial Office for Scotland's spokesman said: "Conferences provide judges with opportunities to share knowledge and good practice with practitioners in over jurisdictions.

Judges wishing to attend conferences must first apply for funding and make a business case.

"We hold a budget for conferences and overseas business travel and  guidance exists to ensure that costs are controlled and maximum benefit is gained"


Late last summer, Lord Brian Gill issued a travel advisory in an attempt to clamp down on judges demanding taxpayer cash to fund jet junkets.

The edict issued by Gill stated that costs of travel, numbers of judges attending, an explanation of the wider benefit of the trip to the judicial system and details of what may be learned - must feature in documents required to be written up by judges and submitted to the Lord President for approval.

Attendance at conferences and authorisation of overseas travel From the Lord President:

I have been reviewing the arrangements to control expenditure to meet attendance at conferences by the judiciary, especially where the conference is taking place outwith the United Kingdom. I have also been considering the arrangements for the authorisation of all other overseas travel to be paid from public funds. With immediate effect the following arrangements are to apply to future requests.

Requests for funding for attendance at conferences and for all other overseas travel should be sought only from the Judicial Office [1] . No request for support to meet attendance at conferences, or other overseas travel should be made to any other part of the Scottish Court Service.

In all cases where funding is being sought I require a business case to be produced by the judicial office holder or the judicial representative body that is seeking funding. The business case does not need to be long, but it must:

(i) identify the nature of the conference;

(ii) the number of judicial office holders it is suggested should attend;

(iii) why that number is necessary if it is more than one;

(iv) the benefit either to those attending or to the judiciary more widely from attendance at the conference;

(v) the likely costs of attendance [2]; and

(vi) the likely impact on the efficient administration of business.

The business case should be sent to the Executive Director of the Judicial Office for Scotland, Stephen Humphreys. He will assess whether funds are available to meet the costs of attendance and if so pass the business case to me.

I will then consider all requests and respond directly to the judicial office holder. I will need a clear justification for any overseas travel. As a general rule it should only be necessary for one judicial office holder to attend a conference overseas. It will only be in exceptional cases that I am likely to consider it necessary for more than one person to attend.

Where support is provided to attend a conference a report is to be prepared and sent to the Executive Director within one month of the end of the conference. The report will be placed on the Judicial Hub and the Judicial website. It is important that as many of the judiciary as possible are able to benefit from the investment of public money in attending the conference.

[1] In respect of attendance at events by Sheriffs, the Sheriffs Association will continue to consider the need for attendance by sheriffs at conferences before preparing the business case and seeking funding. The Association undertakes this activity on behalf of all sheriffs and it considers applications equally from both its members and non-members. If a sheriff wishes to attend a conference he or she should in the first instance contact the Secretary to the Sheriffs' Association. I am grateful to the Association for undertaking this function.

[2] When considering the costs of attendance at a conference, Judicial Office Holders should consult the Judicial Office for an estimate of the likely travel and accommodation costs, if required. Travel and subsistence rules apply to all travel whether inside or outside the UK.

Now,  a year on from the Lord President’s travel guidance - the evidence suggests Lord Gill’s move to make judges more prudent with public cash for travel junkets - has clearly failed.

And – suspiciously - the Judicial Office for Scotland and Scottish Court Service refused to reveal any details of hundreds of taxpayer funded trips taken by Scottish judges around the UK.

When further enquiries were made regarding domestic UK destinations of Scottish judges, staff at the Scottish Court Service switched destinations of Scotland’s second most powerful judge – Lord Carloway from Bristol in England, to Dublin in the Republic of Ireland –  in an attempt to avoid having to disclose the information on UK judicial travel via Freedom of Information legislation.

Full details of trips undertaken by Scottish judges were previously published here: LORD JET SET: Investigation reveals judiciary's international travel junkets spree & LORD FLY-BYE: Scotland's courts in the slow lane as judges prefer law conferences, business & 'diplomatic' trips to life on the bench

Friday, August 14, 2015

REGISTER, M’LORD: Former top judge Brian Gill called to Scottish Parliament as Judicial watchdog tells MSPs - Judges should declare their interests in public register

Judges should be subject to register - Judicial watchdog. A REGISTER of interests for judges should exist - says Scotland's Judicial Complaints Reviewer (JCR) in answer to questions from MSPs who are currently investigating proposals to increase judicial transparency as called for in Petition PE1458: Register of Interests for members of Scotland's judiciary.

In response to questions from members of the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee, JCR Gillian Thompson OBE told MSPs: “I do not see that there is a reasonable argument to be made against people who are in public service—I might go further and say, in particular, people who are paid by the public pound—providing information, within reason, about their other activities.”

As msps deliberated the evidence presented by the JCR, committee member Jackson Carlaw (Scottish Conservative) also called for the now retired Lord Brian Gill to be invited again to the committee to give evidence and account for his stern opposition to the judicial transparency proposals.

Gill (73) –  waged a bitter two year long battle against proposals to create a register of judicial interests. The now retired Lord President previously refused two invitations to attend the Petitions Committee.

The judicial transparency petition which has been the subject of a two year investigation by Holyrood - proposes the creation of a publicly available register of judicial 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.

During the evidence session - held prior to Parliament’s summer recess - it also emerged the Scottish Government took legal advice on the proposal to require judges to declare their substantial wealth, links to big business and others.

The existence of the legal advice emerged from a Freedom of Information request recently passed to the Petitions Committee as part of their investigation of a judicial register.

Committee member & independent MSP John Wilson called for enquiries to be made of the Scottish Government in relation to the nature and origin of the legal advice – the details of which have not yet been made public to msps.

Facing further detailed questions from the committee, JCR Gillian Thompson remained of the view judges should declare their interests including business activities, shareholdings and more – in a publicly available register of judicial interests.

Gillian Thompson’s backing for a register of judicial interests continues the position taken by Moi Ali – Scotland’s first JCR – who continues to support the creation of a register of judicial interests.

Moi Ali previously attended the Scottish Parliament for an evidence session during September 2013, giving powerful evidence on the position of the judiciary and the lack of transparency & accountability of judges in Scotland. Moi Ali’s meeting with msps was reported by the media, along with video footage here: Judicial Complaints Reviewer tells MSPs judges should register their interests like others in public life.

Convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee, John Pentland MSP commented: “The question for the Committee is this: is it reasonable for the ordinary man and woman to expect transparency from our judges in their dealings and their interests? Gillian Thompson, the new Judicial Complaints Reviewer believes it is, and echoed the views of her predecessor when she gave evidence to the Committee.”

Mr Pentland continued: “The Committee will continue to consider what further work could be done to increase transparency. It was unfortunate that Lord Gill felt it was inappropriate to give evidence while he was Lord President of the Court of Session, But as he has now stepped down from his role, the Committee has agreed to extend another invitation to him to discuss his perspective on this important topic. We also look forward to inviting the new Lord President to give evidence to the Committee, once they are in post.”

The Petition Committee's call to bring the former top judge before msps was reported in the Scottish Sun on Sunday newspaper:


Ex-judge faces parly secrets probe order


FORMER top judge Lord Gill could be forced to face a grilling by MSPs over secret business links.

He has twice snubbed requests to attend Holyrood.

As Lord President, he was free to opt out of giving evidence about proposals for a register of judges’ hidden interests, including commercial ties.

But since he retired this year, Lord Gill, 73 — who is against the plans — can be ordered to appear if he turns down a third invitation by parly's petitions It was issued after a plea by Tory Jackson Carlaw.

Mr Carlaw, right, said: "We need to hear from Lord Gill what it is he believes is risked by such a register.

"Another refusal would confirm the suspicion he doesn't fancy having to do what almost everyone else in public life has to do." Committee chief John Pentland confirmed the request.

The Labour MSP said: "As Lord Gill has stepped down, he has again been invited to give his perspective on an important topic."

In keeping with documenting the full debate on judicial interests, video footage and the full transcript of the Public Petitions Committee evidence session with JCR Gillian Thompson are reprinted below:

JCR Gillian Thompson OBE evidence to Scottish Parliament: Register of Interests for Judges Petition PE1458 Scottish Parliament 23 June 2015

Judiciary (Register of Interests) (PE1458), Evidence from Judicial Complaints Reviewer Gillian Thompson OBE

The Convener (John Pentland): Good morning and welcome to the 13th meeting in 2015 of the Public Petitions Committee. I remind everyone to switch off mobile phones and electronic devices, as they interfere with the sound system. No apologies have been received.

Agenda item 1 is consideration of a continued petition, PE1458, by Peter Cherbi, on a register of interests for Scotland’s judiciary. As previously agreed, we are taking evidence today from the judicial complaints reviewer. Members have a note by the clerk and a submission from the petitioner, and they were sent a link to the previous judicial complaints reviewer’s annual report.

I welcome Gillian Thompson OBE, the judicial complaints reviewer, to the meeting and invite her to make a short opening statement of no more than five minutes, after which we will move to questions.

Gillian Thompson OBE (Judicial Complaints Reviewer): Good morning and thank you for inviting me. I will say a few words to put my appearance today in context. I have been in post since September 2014. I have a background in public service. I was a civil servant for 36 years, and since then I have gathered to myself a group of board memberships on charities and third sector organisations and now the post of judicial complaints reviewer.

I will tell you where I am with the work, because that was something that you asked my predecessor. Since I took up post, I have had 22 requests for review, 17 of which are outstanding. I am actively looking at three this week, and I hope to get rid of those by Friday. I inherited a backlog of 14 from my predecessor and I cleared those around 25 March 2015. That gives you a bit of a feel for how the work is going. The waiting time for people is around four to five months. I have not had any complaints about that, although I appreciate that it is not ideal.

I wrote to the committee at its request on 12 January. I am supportive of a register of interests. I always have been and that remains my position.

The Convener: Thank you, Gillian. In your letter to the committee, you wrote:

“We live in an age in which transparency about interests and activities of those in the public eye is regarded as good practice. There is a perception that anything less is the result of attempts to hide things.”

That suggests that anything less than the degree of openness that is associated with a register of interests would not constitute best practice and would be perceived as an attempt to hide things. Is that a fair interpretation?

Gillian Thompson: Absolutely. That remains my view.

David Torrance (Kirkcaldy) (SNP): Good morning. In your opening statement, you said that you were in favour of a register of interests. Will you expand a wee bit on why you are in favour of it?

Gillian Thompson: For the reasons that I set out in my letter in January, I do not see that there is a reasonable argument to be made against people who are in public service—I might go further and say, in particular, people who are paid by the public pound—providing information, within reason, about their other activities. People in this room, including me, keep a register of interests. In my experience, it is not particularly onerous. Of course, we would be talking about there being a register somewhere that somebody would have to keep and all the points that I made in my letter. However, registers need to be updated reasonably regularly. I will update mine shortly because I am taking on some new and different responsibilities.

For me, it is about a mindset. I cannot see arguments against it, I have to confess so, although I am experienced in giving a balanced view, I am not sure that I can do so on this occasion. People want to be able to feel that they are getting an even-handed response at court, whoever sits in judgment. They want to feel that there is no bias, and a register would go part of the way—it is all part and parcel of a wider picture—towards reassuring them that nobody is hiding anything.

Jackson Carlaw (West Scotland) (Con): Good morning. Do you consider yourself to be part of the establishment?

Gillian Thompson: I suppose that that depends on where you are sitting. No, I probably do not.

Jackson Carlaw: I do not know whether I am relieved. As far as I can see, the establishment—in so far as it exists—has been unanimously against any such register, as has the Government in, no doubt, the personage of Mr MacAskill, who was in the Government at the time we received the advice. He will speak for himself in due course.

Your predecessor was quite sympathetic towards a register of interests and, from what we have read, you are too. The former Lord President’s principal argument seemed to be that, unlike members of the Parliament, members of the judiciary would not have the opportunity to answer back if they were challenged in some way. Ironically, however, he did not deign to come before the committee to answer back in person to defend any of his assertions on these matters, so we have always had to try to read the runes. I think that our former convener and deputy convener were able to meet him privately, but they are no longer here.

The former Lord President’s argument was essentially that there was no need, in this era of transparency, for light to shine on the judiciary, and that some great malfeasance of justice could occur if it were to do so, but primarily it was that there was an obstacle to being able to rebut any assertions or claims that were made based on the register. Does that resonate with you as sufficient ground to disbar such a suggestion?

Gillian Thompson: No. My understanding of what Lord Gill had said before was that, as far as he was concerned, judges took an oath to uphold certain values, so nothing further than that was required, because the public would be able to rely on people in that position to know what they needed to do and to do it. I understand that, since the judicial complaints reviewer post was put in place in 2011, there is now a recusal process. Judges can recuse themselves and there is a register, or at least a list, of those people who have done so.

However, I am not persuaded by that argument. At the moment, people are able to make a complaint about the conduct of a judge in whatever form. I would have thought that some way could be found of challenging or answering back or having a review taken, if there is a list. I can see that there might be a need to extend the complaints process, but I do not know. It is a normal part of public service that people keep a register. It seems to me to be common sense.

Jackson Carlaw: Thank you.

Kenny MacAskill (Edinburgh Eastern) (SNP): I see the logic of where you are coming from, but who would impose the sanction in the event of a breach or failure? Would it come back to the Lord President or to yourself? Who would be the final arbiter of a failure to register or a failure to properly register?

Gillian Thompson: It is a bit of crystal ball gazing, is it not? The judicial complaints reviewer role stands and it does what it says on the tin in terms of the regulations. All that I can do at this juncture is to examine whether the rules have been followed in relation to the complaint. I do not look any further beyond that at all. There would obviously need to be consideration of how the process would work, but the Lord President currently has responsibility for sanctioning judges in the event that something is found against their conduct under the rules. I would have thought that responsibility would sit squarely on the shoulders of whoever comes along as Lord President in future.

Kenny MacAskill: Presumably, the register would be financial and pecuniary. A lot of the recusals that are made at the moment will be because a judge has knowledge of a witness or a relationship with them.

Gillian Thompson: Yes. It is a register of interests. I gave you my little register of interests, including what I am paid and which charities I support, and including my membership of the Scottish Dachshund Club, just to underscore the point. The answer to your question is yes. Why should not whatever is deemed appropriate for others, such as yourself and Government ministers, also be deemed appropriate for people who are sitting in judgment on others?

John Wilson (Central Scotland) (Ind): Good morning. I note that a voluntary register of recusal has been established. Can you confirm that, at present, a judge or sheriff can recuse themselves voluntarily?

Gillian Thompson: As far as I am aware, that is the case.

John Wilson: I make the point, because we have just seen the establishment of the first private bank for 150 years. It claims to have 250 shareholders, and it has been reported in the press that some of those shareholders are judges and sheriffs. Do you think that it would be appropriate for those judges or sheriffs to put themselves on the register if they were shareholders in a private bank?

Gillian Thompson: Why would they not?

John Wilson: Well—

Gillian Thompson: I am just raising the question—it is not an issue that I have thought about before now. My view is that anything at all that could be construed by a person in the street using everyday common sense as getting in the way or which might be perceived as getting in the way should go on a register. However, we should remember that it would not be for me to make such decisions, even if we were to get to that position.

John Wilson: My understanding is that you have been invited along to give us your views, because we respect the role of the judicial complaints reviewer—

Gillian Thompson: I appreciate that.

John Wilson: —and because we also took evidence from your predecessor in pursuing this petition. Your evidence will, I hope, indicate to the committee where we should go with this petition and the kinds of issues that it raises.

You said—and I am paraphrasing—that the ordinary person in the street should get to know whether a judge or sheriff has interests that might impact on their service or their hearing a particular case. How far would you want to take that? After all, there are issues about financial interests or people appearing in front of judges and sheriffs who might be members of the same golf club or, indeed, the Scottish Dachshund Club that you mentioned. If a register of interests for judges and sheriffs were to be established, how far would you want it to go?

Gillian Thompson: As I said on record at the outset, I am supportive of my predecessor’s position. There should be a register for judges in which they note their interests. Would we ever reach the point where a judge would say in court, “I want to register the fact that I know this person. We play at the same golf club,” or, “I don’t know this person”? In the context of this conversation, I have to say that I do not know. It would be necessary to give a bit more thought to the practicalities of that. All I can say is that, when I go to a meeting, we are asked at the beginning whether, for example, there has been any change to the register of interests that we keep in a particular context.

Just for the sake of clarification, I am supportive of a register of interests. I think that that is what the public, if they have thought about the matter, want. I might be asked for my opinion on what that might look like in its absolutely final state, but sitting here today, I am not sure that I can go into all the ins and outs of that.

John Wilson: I appreciate that, Ms Thompson. Thank you very much for your evidence.

Angus MacDonald (Falkirk East) (SNP): Good morning, Ms Thompson. Following on from that point, there is an argument that the information on a register could be abused by the media, hostile individuals or dissatisfied litigants. Do you have any views on that?

Gillian Thompson: It is an inevitability that, when you put information into the public domain, different interests might cross over. I had personal experience of that recently. I had to deal with an issue that arose with what looked like some sort of cross-purposing of some different roles that I hold. However, that was just a misunderstanding on the part of the person who was seeking to investigate a bit further. In my experience, one has to spend a bit of time unscrambling such misunderstandings, but I would not say that that is a reason for not having a register.

These things need to be managed, of course, as I indicated in my response in January. Somebody would need to hold the register and it would need to be managed—there is an on-cost to all of that. However, as I understand the nature of the petition, it is about seeking some clarity for those people who are going to court about interests that judges may hold that are not known.

Angus MacDonald: While I have the floor, I will go back to a point that was raised earlier. You indicated that you agree with your predecessor’s view that the powers of the JCR to review the complaints process are limited. If that is the case, do you have any plans to review the complaints process?

Gillian Thompson: It is not for me to review. I have said to the Scottish Government that we are four years into the role and I am the second person in the role so it is probably time to start thinking about the possibility of reviewing whether what was originally envisaged under the primary legislation, which was passed in 2008, is what is still required.

As a former civil servant, I am always supportive of the idea that, if we have a policy and a concept and the Parliament has agreed to legislation, once it has been in force for a while, at some point or another—a three or four-year period seems not unreasonable—we should go back to have a look at the legislation to see whether it still meets the requirements.

I am sitting in the role, but a review might say that we do not need a JCR. I am not saying that; I am just saying that there are a lot of ways to look at the issue and I would not be putting my hand up to say that we absolutely have to have the role. Bluntly, I am interested in whether the role is value for money for the public. At the moment, generally speaking, I hope that I am giving value for money. I am getting more efficient at doing the reviews, and the speed will come.

However, it is a very narrow role that looks only at whether the rules have been followed. It does not involve looking at anything else over and above that. It does not involve looking at the whys and the wherefores or asking how something could possibly happen or whether it is reasonable. There is none of that. I may have thoughts, but that is not my role.

Should there be a review? Yes, but it is not for me to do. I can give input, but the review is for someone else to carry out should they decide that there is scope and appetite for it and that it fits with all the other work that needs to be done.

Angus MacDonald: I presume, however, that it will be a priority that you will raise with the new Lord President once he or she is appointed.

Gillian Thompson: I will raise it, as I have already raised it with the Scottish Government and my contacts in the Scottish Government, including Mr Wheelhouse, whom I met in January.

Hanzala Malik (Glasgow) (Lab): You made a comment about it taking perhaps four to five months to deal with cases and you have suggested that that is perhaps a little long. What would be a reasonable time? Will you be able to meet that in the near future and reduce the time that it takes? I know that you have not been in post for very long, so I appreciate that I am effectively asking you to set yourself a challenge.

Gillian Thompson: I have already done that. As you may be aware, the Scottish Government’s contract with the JCR is for up to three days a month. I have been working more days than that, by agreement with the Scottish Government. From the middle of December 2014, I have been working four days a month.

The backlog refuses to go down, which is largely because of input. It is demand led, and a demand-led service on a restricted number of days will always be a bit of a headache for the person who is delivering the service and for the people who are waiting.

I put a proposal to the Scottish Government in May, I think, and it has agreed for me to do six days this month, next month and in August. Will I clear the backlog? No. However, with two days extra over and above the four, which is effectively twice as many days as what the contract says, I should be able to push through enough cases, but I would not like to say exactly how many. That of course depends on their complexity. Some cases are straightforward, whereas some require me to give a bit more thought and perhaps to seek clarification. Everybody is entitled to have me spend a bit of time thinking about what I will say. As the second person in the role, I have been able to pick up the processes that Moi Ali put in place. They probably need reviewing, but I do not have time to do that.

My hope is that, by the end of August, I will have substantially moved through the backlog. I have a background in public service, specifically in front-line service, and I do not think that it is appropriate for people to wait for as long as four to five months. I write to people to keep them up to date on how much longer they can expect to wait.

I do not want to put a figure on it today, other than to say that I am moving through the cases more quickly now. It takes about a day or perhaps a day and a half to do a reasonably complex case. I can do two cases in one day if they are pretty straightforward and there is not much paperwork. I would like to reach a position where there was no backlog and I was dealing with things as they came in but, frankly, I think that that is unlikely.

In addition to the 22 cases that have come to me since 1 September 2014, I have had seven inquiries. I have put a telephone number on the website, whereas there was not one before, so I get telephone inquiries, too. There are also events such as this meeting today and other meetings, which I do on days when I am not working. We need to be realistic about these things.

Hanzala Malik: I genuinely appreciate your response, which is honest and balanced. However, I do not think that what you are telling me actually helps you. It suggests that there is more pressure on what you are trying to achieve. I do not suggest for a moment that your work would be diluted, but there is a lot of pressure on you to get through the cases in the time that you are working. I suggest that you may want to explore the possibility of either getting more help or more days to try to achieve the good goals that you would like to achieve. I wish you good luck with that.

Gillian Thompson: Thank you. If there was to be a review, that would need to be part and parcel of it. Bear in mind that I do everything, such as housekeeping and maintaining the website, which really need attention. Those are things that I dream about at night—they do not keep me awake, but you know what I mean.

Hanzala Malik: Yes, I do—thank you very much.

The Convener: In an earlier response to Angus MacDonald, you said that it was not your responsibility to do a review of the rules. Do you believe that the current rules are fit for purpose?

Gillian Thompson: Are you talking about my role or the rules? The rules belong to the Judicial Office for Scotland.

The Convener: Do you believe that the complaints process that is run by the Judicial Office for Scotland is fit for purpose?

Gillian Thompson: It is fit for the purpose that is currently in place. I am in absolutely no doubt that the process that is in place at the Judicial Office for Scotland improved during the time when my predecessor was in post, although when she left she felt that she had not added the value that she would have wished to. Picking up where she left off, and having had a number of conversations and meetings with the Judicial Office for Scotland, I am satisfied that the process has grown organically and improved. The way in which the office deals with throughput and writes its letters has improved.

As we would hope, the complaints process has led to service improvement in the entity that the complaints are about. The new rules, which came into effect on 1 April 2015, are an improvement. There has been a bit of sequencing and streamlining of the rules and there is a bit more explanation for people who are trying to find their way through the system. The guidance leaflet was improved.

That deals with one part of your question. The other part—I am interpreting your question—is whether the JCR is fit for purpose. As it is currently constituted, it does what the regulations require of it. It could do more, but that would require somebody to say that more is needed. As I said, the JCR is very one dimensional.

The Convener: As you said, the new complaints rules were published on 1 April. How far did they go to addressing the concerns that your predecessor highlighted?

Gillian Thompson: They did so in small measure, I think. Forgive me if I am telling you something that you know, but Moi Ali had undertaken a mini consultation among the people who asked for a review. When the Judicial Office for Scotland did a consultation, Moi did her own consultation, which she passed to the Judicial Office. You may have seen that the Judicial Office, in tandem with publishing the rules, also published a consultation response, which set out what measures it had and had not taken on.

To answer your question, the Judicial Office went part of the way to responding to the concerns that the petitioner expressed about the rules and how they work. Some of that was around the understanding of a person who comes up against the rules. Sometimes, it is difficult for people who are inexperienced in such matters to understand properly what the different rules mean.

Because quite a bit of time went by, I was asked for my view, too. I offered what I hoped were helpful suggestions. The Judicial Office took a view on the totality of the responses that it got and made a determination to which the Lord President was able to agree. That does not fully answer your question, but it does in part. The committee might be interested in the Judicial Office’s response document. It is helpful in understanding the rule changes that were made.

John Wilson: Will you remind us how many responses were made to the review?

Gillian Thompson: I am not sure that I know. I have a piece of paper somewhere with me, which I can leave with you.

John Wilson: The information that we have in front of us says that there were five responses.

Gillian Thompson: It was a small handful; there were not masses. You can construe your own view on that.

I should clarify that I went back to the Judicial Office to ask whether it had taken into account my predecessor’s responses on the matter. I seem to remember being told that it had not.

John Wilson: That was going to be my follow-up question. I was going to ask whether your predecessor’s responses were included in those five responses.

Gillian Thompson: They were included as one response.

John Wilson: As one?

Gillian Thompson: Yes, I believe so.

The Convener: As there are no further questions, we will move on to deciding what actions we want to take on the petition.

Kenny MacAskill: We should write to the incoming Lord President, whoever he or she may be, to ask them what their views are given the clear expressions of not just one but two Judicial Complaints Reviewers. The new Lord President may be otherwise minded on the matter. It is incumbent on us to wait until we see what they say before we consider the petition further.

Equally, given Ms Thompson’s view, it might be worth asking the Scottish Government whether now is an opportune moment to review the JCR. That would be for the Scottish Government to deal with, rather than the Lord President.

There is the possibility of a new regime for the judiciary with the new Lord President. Equally, after four years, and into the second Judicial Complaints Reviewer, is the job what we want it to be or should it be reviewed? That need not be a lengthy consideration or review. Is the service doing what we want it to? If the role were to expand, which would be dependent on the Lord President, how much further should that go were there to be a judicial register?

Jackson Carlaw: When the petition first came before us, I was deeply sceptical of it. However, given the reaction to it and to our inquiries, I became more persuaded that it may have merit.

I support what Mr MacAskill said. I wonder whether, subsequent to the incoming Lord President giving us their view, they would offer themselves up to the committee to allow us to examine that or whether they will have the same position on appearing before the committee as their predecessor. It might be worth inquiring about that. First, however, we must see what they have to say on the matter.

I think that the previous Lord President’s principal reason why it was not appropriate to come before the committee was that he did not see how, while in office, it was incumbent on him to do so. Now that he is not in office, I wonder whether he would be willing to do that, to allow us to understand further his perspective on the matter. I was always open to persuasion on the issue. It has been the lack of a reasonable, sustained argument that has led me to remain sympathetic to the aims of the petition.

The clerk has advised me that it is not competent for the committee to initiate a bill of its own. Of course, it is open to any member of the Parliament to do so, in this session or the next.

As Ms Thompson has said, there seems to be a clear public interest in the issue, which has found expression. In the absence of a more substantive argument than the impression that it is not something that people want, the committee should be reluctant to allow the petition to run into the sand. We should do all that we can to sustain it and pursue its objectives for as long as we feel able to do so.

I support the suggestions that have been made, but I wanted to offer those additional thoughts.

John Wilson: I suggest that, if we are writing to the Scottish Government to seek its views, we get clarification on the further evidence that has been provided by the petitioner regarding the legal advice that the Scottish Government sought.

We have the correspondence that the petitioner received, which states that the Government feels that it is not advisable to release the legal advice at the moment. Could we ask for clarification of when that legal advice was sought and why the Government felt it necessary to seek that advice?

The Convener: Do members agree to the action that has been proposed?

Members indicated agreement.

The Convener: I thank Ms Thompson for attending. I suspend the meeting for a couple of minutes to allow for a changeover of witnesses.

10:12 Meeting suspended.

The petition will next be heard at the Scottish Parliament during late September or early October 2015.

Earlier this year it emerged a secret meeting was held in February between Legal Affairs Minister Paul Wheelhouse and Lord Gill during February - to discuss joint efforts between the Scottish Government and senior judicial figures to undermine proposals for increased judicial transparency.

Some weeks after the meeting, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon issued a letter of intervention declaring she felt judges should be able to conceal their interests and other activities – activities which now extend from shareholdings in corrupt businesses to lobbying for fracking interests to tax avoidance and more. The Scottish Government’s attempt to thwart a register of judicial interests was reported in the media here: INTERESTS INTERVENE: First Minister joins top judge in bid to block register of judicial interests

Legal Affairs Minister Paul Wheelhouse - who attended the secret meeting – was recently accused of misleading msps in an earlier evidence session at Holyrood held in December 2014

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

Thursday, August 06, 2015

TO PLAY THE PRESIDENT: Transparency, diversity & judicial reform on the cards as hunt begins for Scotland’s next top judge & Lord President of the Court of Session

The hunt for Scotland’s next top judge. APPLICATIONS to be Scotland’s next top judge are now being considered under a closed door process & selection panel set up to find a new Lord President of the Court of Session -  some three months after the sudden retirement of Scotland's longest serving judge - Lord Brian Gill.

The selection panel who will interview, shortlist and then recommend a suitable candidate for the position of Lord President to the First Minister by - no later than Friday 30 October - is made up of: Sir Muir Russell – Judicial Appointments Board for Scotland, Mrs Deirdre Fulton – Judicial Appointments Board for Scotland, The Rt Hon Lord Reed – Justice of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, The Rt Hon Lady Dorrian – Senator, Inner House of the Court of Session.

The position of Lord President – with a salary of £220,655 a year, including perks such as access to international travel and unrivalled power to challenge the Scottish Parliament - is responsible for leadership of the entire Scottish judiciary, in addition to chairing the Board of the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service. The office holder is the most senior judge in Scotland, with authority over any court established under Scots law, apart from the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom

The previous holder of the office – Brian Gill (73) retired abruptly in May 2015 after serving across three decades on the bench. Gill ended his last three years as a member of the judiciary on the top spot as Lord President & Lord Justice General from 8 June 2012 to 31 May 2015.

Brian Gill was widely respected as a reforming judge for his work on the Scottish Civil Courts Review - which saw the then Lord President issue a scathing condemnation of Scotland’s Civil justice system as “Victorian” and that of a legal system which Lord Gill said, with long experience - was “failing the litigant and it is failing society”.

However, the top judge eventually came unstuck after waging a controversial two year battle against the Scottish Parliament in an effort to thwart proposals to require members of the judiciary to declare their vast and varied interests.

The judicial transparency proposal - which provoked the now retired top judge to use loopholes within the Scotland Act against the Scottish Parliament call for 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.

Now, the process begins where applications must now conform to a deadline for referees - Monday 24 August 2015 (midnight), then are subject to sifting - taking place on Wednesday 2 September 2015, invitation to interview by Monday 7 September 2015, with interviews held on Monday 5 October 2015 and finally - recommendations to First Minister by Friday 30 October 2015.

The Lord President is the senior judge in Scotland and the head of the Scottish judiciary. In addition to its judicial duties, the office carries with it responsibilities for the administration of justice in Scotland. These responsibilities include the general supervision of the business of the Court of Session and the High Court of Justiciary, the initiation and preparation of all subordinate legislation made by those Courts, and an important role in the development of policy concerning the courts and the judiciary in Scotland. In addition, the Lord President has various statutory functions, for example, in relation to the membership and rules of procedure of various tribunals, the regulation of the Faculty of Advocates and the Law Society of Scotland and, along with the Lord Justice Clerk, the removal from office of sheriffs.

The Lord President also acts as chairing member of the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS) which provides administrative support to the Scottish Courts and judiciary, and to the Scottish Tribunals and members. It is for the Lord President, along with the other SCTS members, to provide visible leadership and strategic direction to drive the necessary reform and continuous improvement which will enable the SCTS to develop.

This week, the Scottish Sun on Sunday newspaper featured an in depth two page report on the hunt for a new Lord President:

 Who'll be the judge?


By: RUSSELL FINDLAY 2 August 2015 Scottish Sun

THE hunt is on for Scotland's new top judge — and applicants have until tomorrow to throw their wigs in the ring.

If chosen as Lord President of the Court of Session, they will be handed a £220,655 salary and enormous power.

But here, The Scottish Sun on Sunday's RUSSELL FINDLAY finds out why tackling the judiciary's secrecy and vested interests should be the top priority for our next top Lord — or Lady.

THE historic title dates back to 1532 when its first holder wasn't just in charge of every Scots judge but also a community of monks.

Alexander Mylne, abbot of Cambuskenneth Abbey, near Stirling, was given the grand title of Lord President of the Court of Session by King James V. Since then bishops, barons, lords, earls and viscounts have all had turns in the lofty post.

But campaigners insist the next top beak must be prepared to do what no other Lord President has done — put an end to our legal system's culture of secrecy and drag it into the 21st century.

The vacancy at the top of the judicial tree was created in May when the previous incumbent announced he was retiring after an astonishing public spat with Holyrood.

Lord Gill, 73, twice refused to attend the parliament's Public Petitions Committee to discuss a proposed register of interests.

MSPs wanted him to explain his fierce opposition to moves that would require judges to reveal their personal, business and financial secrets.

He claimed the principle of judicial independence from political interference meant he could not be forced to attend.

But critics insist the law is meant to stop judges being quizzed on court verdicts, not administrative issues.

And Lord Gill's snub united all parties in anger.

Scots Tory deputy leader Jackson Carlaw has since secured the issue of a fresh invite to the retired judge.

Fellow committee member John Wilson said: "It's not up to politicians to meddle in court decisions but proper independent scrutiny of judges' undeclared interests and conduct is long overdue.

"Their business dealings have to be absolutely clear.

"Anyone appearing in front of a judge — for a criminal or civil case — needs to know if they have any direct or indirect vested interests."

Mr Wilson believes our legal elite should be embracing reform, not opposing it.

The independent MSP said: "This is about strengthening the credibility of our judiciary so no one can point a finger and say they were unfairly treated because a judge did not declare an interest."

The public petition being discussed by MSPs was lodged by Peter Cherbi. The campaigner, from Edinburgh, claims he was stung by lawyers and the self-regulation which he believes protects them.

And he thinks that, after almost 500 years of men, a woman is needed at the top.

Mr Cherbi said: "It's time for the old boys' club to be rocked by a Lady President.

"I'd want her to maintain the judiciary's independence and integrity while bringing it into the 21st century for both transparency and accountability."

The role as the 45th nor-Lord President would normally be expected to go to Lord Carloway, 61, our secondmost senior judge.

But insiders say the Lord Justice Clerk is tainted by his backing of the SNP government's failed bid to scrap corroboration in Scots Law.

The proposal was opposed by his judicial colleagues.

Another contender is Lady Smith, 60.

She could make history as first female presiding judge of the College of Justice and the Court of Session. Lady Smith would also take up the titles of Lord Justice General of Scotland and the head of the High Court of Justiciary.

But first she'd have to win approval from a selection panel, then be nominated by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, right, and the Prime Minister before being formally appointed by the Queen.

The Lord President hears complex appeals, runs our courts, makes reforms and is consulted by the UK and Scottish governments. Based at Parliament House in Edinburgh, he or she can shun MSPs down the Royal Mile at the new Parly building and is exempt from freedom of information laws.

The Lord President also cannot be held to account by the Judicial Complaints Reviewer.

That was one of many reasons that persuaded Moi Ali to quit after she became the first person appointed to the role. Ms Ali stood down last year because she was unable to alter the system of our judges regulating their own conduct.

She would like to see the Scottish Government give the public the same powers to scrutinise them as exists in England and Wales.

Ms Ali said: "The government should but I don't think they will because the judiciary here is incredibly powerful. They will not be challenged. England and Wales are light years ahead in terms of holding judges to account.

"That surprises me as our government says it believes in social justice and putting citizens first, not vested interests." Ms Ali, a Scottish Police Authority board member, also blasted Lord Gill's snubbing of Holyrood's Petitions Committee.

She said: "It brought into focus how out of touch he was.

"It's about coming up to the standards expected in every other sphere of public life. He did the judiciary a great disservice because he confirmed the stereotypes."

As for Lord Gill's replacement, Ms Ali added: "It would be nice for it to be a woman to help redress the balance of the past 500 years.

"But it should be the right person for the job, someone who will bring about change. If that is a man, that's fine by me."


By: RUSSELL FINDLAY 2 August 2015 Scottish Sun

Disgraced ... sheriffs Neilson, Lothian and Anthony all resigned

SHAMED lawmen have landed in the dock for violence, drink driving and fraud — with others forced to quit after being caught in a brothel.

Sheriff Hugh Neilson was found in a sex sauna in Glasgow during a police raid in 2004.

He said he was only there for a shave but later resigned and was last year convicted of drink driving.

Sheriff Andrew Lothian quit in 2008 over claims that he had regular sex sessions with prostitutes at an Edinburgh sauna.

And Sheriff Robert Anthony QC was forced to leave his post in 2010 when cops caught him driving on the M8 while more than three times the legal booze limit.

Justice of the Peace Peter Drummond was convicted in April of punching a man in a pub fight in Cowdenbeath.

Another dodgy law chief was convicted of benefit fraud.

But his or her identity was kept secret from the public.

Former Judicial Complaints Reviewer Moi Ali highlighted cases of alleged misbehaviour by mystery judges.

One was accused of a "tyrannical rant" at a female dog walker who was left "shaking with nerves" and felt "very intimidated".

And an unnamed sheriff was accused of secretly recording conversations after being branded a bully.


By: RUSSELL FINDLAY 2 August 2015 Scottish Sun

CRITICS have called on judges to declare their private shares in big businesses to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

Peter Watson was suspended from sitting as a sheriff by law chief Lord Gill in February.

The lawyer — whose clients included former First Minister Alex Salmond — was briefly a director of Mathon, run by tycoon Gregory King.

King was a director of hedge fund Heather Capital that was the subject of a massive fraud probe after its collapse.

Heather Capital's liquidators Ernst & Young filed a multi-million court demand against Watson's former law firm Levy & McRae.

We later revealed that Watson, below, had also been a director of a private bank which King planned to launch in Gibraltar — and held shares in new Edinburgh-based private bank Hampden & Co.

Last year a Scottish Sun investigation found Sheriff Principal Alastair Dunlop owned shares in a company hit with a £13.9million proceeds of crime bill for bribing Saddam Hussein's regime.

The same sheriff also heard a case involving Tesco despite having shares in the supermarket chain.

There was no suggestion of wrongdoing but it fuelled calls for transparency.

Judges are subject to self-regulating system and take an oath to "do right" by people "without fear or favour".

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

EXHIBIT A, M’LUD: From £58m refit to land titles giveaway, jets to junkets & no Lord President, may it please the court Scots shall visit the Parliament House Edfringe exhibition

Parliament House exhibition - Scotland’s seat of judicial power A YEAR in the life of Scotland’s Parliament House - the seat of almost invincible, untouchable and certainly – inflexible judicial power can be a frustrating, trying, and somewhat onerous one to bear.

The past year has seen Scotland’s top judge again called to account for his aggressive posture against transparency on judicial interests.

Judicial air junkets again came into focus – revealing state visits to Qatar and the judiciary’ jet set life style - flying round the globe at taxpayers expense.

Explanations of attending boring law conferences are always put forward – but suspicions linger m’luds are not always – as Princess Leia claimed – on a diplomatic mission to Alderaan.

The shocking revelations from an investigation by Land Reform campaigner Andy Wightman that land titles to Scotland’s top court buildings were simply handed over by Scottish Ministers to the overpaid Faculty of Advocates before £58million of taxpayers money was spent on the somewhat "Victorian" court buildings (a £58m refit originally budgeted for £120m).

Then, there was the episode where Lord Gill – Scotland’s now former top judge became so incensed with the media, he issued an edict threatening to ban journalists access to court papers.

And finally, to cap off the performance, Lord Gill - Scotland’s longest serving judge and Lord President leaves the stage in a rather abrupt style after three years and retires, leaving no anointed replacement to fill the top post.

Life inside the secretive cloistered world of Parliament Hall & Parliament House, has never been so much in the spotlight.

Exhibition leaflet on the £58million public spend on Parliament House However, putting all this aside for a few weeks while judges jaunt off on holidays to the likes of (name a dictatorship, tax avoidance haunt or junket destination here), our great Parliament House justice complex stands open at the mercy of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, ensuring those of you who wish to see how the [square] ‘wheels’ of Scottish justice have managed to chug along for the last 500 years.

You, the public paid for it, all £58 million and much more over the years.

So, in this traditionally wet Scottish summer, why not take a few hours out of the next two weeks to visit what many legal insiders will tell you – is the true seat of power in Scotland – Parliament Hall - where frowns from judges and lobbying from the almost lethal and very legal ‘establishment’ can effectively skewer legislation from our democratically elected sovereign Parliament at Holyrood.

‘Parliament House, The Hidden Gem’, features colourful, life size panels on the history, traditions and work of Scotland’s supreme courts.

The exhibition will be open weekdays, Monday to Friday, 10:30 to 16:00 as venue 402 for the Edinburgh Fringe from 7 August to 25 September and then for Doors Open Day on Saturday 26 September. 

It was created to mark a five-year, £58 million refurbishment of Parliament House completed on time and under budget. The work modernised the 17th century, 700-room building, while preserving its traditional courtrooms.

Well worth a visit, for £58million.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

ACT OF FRAUD: Files reveal how law chiefs battled to recover £1.8m legal aid cash from estate of suicide lawyer as new questions emerge over ability of Crown Office to pursue legal aid cheat lawyers

£150m annual legal aid bill ‘a fraud target’ DOCUMENTS revealing how an agreement was eventually secured by the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) & Civil Recovery Unit of the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) to recover £1.8million in fraudulently claimed legal aid have been released by Legal Aid chiefs.

The case of Scotland’s largest legal aid fraud – masterminded by solicitor James Muir who committed suicide in 2005 while under investigation for making multiple & fraudulent claims for publicly funded legal aid – echoes forward to 2015 as the annual legal aid bill of £150 million becomes an ever increasing target for scammers & fraudsters both inside & outside the legal profession.

A minute of agreement archived at the Registers of Scotland and released by SLAB in response to a Freedom of Information request tells the tale of how the stolen public funds were eventually paid back by Muir’s former law firm and his window - Susan Muir – who was a serving Police Officer at the time.

The agreement was signed in September 2007 – two years after Mr Muir committed suicide.

The document describes how Muir’s former law firm - Messrs Sneddon Morrison Solicitors (formerly Sneddons SSC) would repay £259,941,70 to the Scottish Legal Aid Board, and £87,000 to the Civil Recovery Unit of the Crown Office.

Susan Muir, the widow of James Muir, agreed to repay £519,061.84 to the Scottish Legal Aid Board and then a further £884,000 to the Civil Recovery Unit from the sale of a property in Bothwell.

One of the witnesses to the agreement is William Macreath – head of Glasgow based law firm Levy & Mcrae. At the time, and currently, the same law firm represent the Legal Defence Union and the Scottish Police Federation.

Currently, Levy & Mcrae are battling a multi million pound writ lodged against them in connection with allegations over their role in the collapse of Heather Capital,a £400million hedge fund.

However, while the two year effort to recover the fraudulently claimed legal aid and it’s ‘eventual’ repayment was championed by SLAB and the Crown Office at the time, there are questions now as to why the Lord Advocate has not used similar methods to recover millions more in public cash from other lawyers who have also been accused of making dodgy legal aid claims.

Since 2007, numerous solicitors accused of making false or fraudulent legal aid claims have featured in media headlines.

In April 2011 a Sunday Mail newspaper investigation revealed Kilmarnock solicitor Niels S Lockhart had claimed at least £600,000 of taxpayers' money in just two years.

A Report to the Law Society of Scotland Section 31, Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 1986: Niels S Lockhart released by the Scottish Legal Aid Board to the media - accused Lockhart of deliberately ramping up his claims.

After Lockhart ignored a warning from SLAB to curb his claims, the Scottish Legal Aid Board investigated before a probe team concluded that his applications were a systematic attempt to create extra fees. But despite deciding that he routinely made "unnecessary and excessive" claims, SLAB did not call in police. They referred Lockhart to the Law Society of Scotland who also decided no fraud had taken place.

A further investigation by Sunday Mail newspaper in 2011 established that fourteen solicitors accused of making fraudulent legal aid claims escaped prosecution by the Crown Office.

However, unlike in the James Muir case, the Scottish Legal Aid Board and the Crown Office appear to have made no attempts whatsoever to recover public funds in the additional cases -  which could potentially total millions of pounds.

The documents, provided by the Scottish Legal Aid Board in response to an FOI request along with a statement of SLAB’s investigation of James Muir and subsequent events including the eventual recovery of the fraudulently claimed legal aid funds are published, with signatures & addresses redacted, below:

Statement from the Scottish Legal Aid Board:

The firm of James H G Muir SSC was subject to investigation by the Board's Compliance and Solicitor Investigation unit from November 2004. The firm was identified through the Board's on-going programme of monitoring and investigating of legal aid expenditure.

Issues were identified from an analysis of expenditure, and investigation work on the profile of applications received and accounts submitted for payment in respect of Children's cases by the firm. Theses issues included the persistently high cost of cases, the nature of the subject matter, the content of material submitted with accounts, as well as inconsistencies between the personal details of children on applications submitted and the same information included with the accounts. These aspects, together with discrepancies in information submitted by Mr Muir subsequently cross-checked with third parties such as the Scottish Court Service and Scottish Children Reporter Agency, caused sufficient concern for the Board to contact the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service ("COPFS") in February 2005. COPFS in turn instructed Strathclyde Police to investigate the matter.

Mr Muir died on 20 April 2005. The criminal section of the Crown Office could not carry out in further investigative work as, with the death of Mr Muir, there could be no prosecution of any party. Mr Muir's death also presented a number of matters that required to be resolved. These included the ingathering of the Estate, the involvement of the Civil Recovery unit and the work of forensic accountants in establishing any 'dirty money' streams to assets.

The CRU worked to preserve and identify assets, while the Board sought to establish the extent of any fraudulent activities and charges made by Mr Muir. This work not only involved investigating Mr Muir's firm, which was established in 2001, but also required us to consider his activities when he was a Partner with his previous firm, Sneddon Morrison.

Once the extent of the fraud, the most serious ever uncovered by the Board, was established at £1,8m, it was then a matter to secure the recovery of the sums from both the estate of the late Mr Muir and in addition the firm of Sneddon Morrison. It was established that the partners and staff of Sneddon Morrison were not involved in the fraudulent scheme carried out by Mr Muir when a partner, but the firm did benefit from the fraudulent payments and consequently were required to repay these sums, which they did.

A considerable amount of analysis, enquiry and investigation was dedicated to this case. Work had to be done to demonstrate to all relevant parties that Mr Muir had indeed perpetuated a fraudulent scheme on the Board over several years, and in respect of the Proceeds of Crime all the defrauded sums had to be repaid. This was achieved without having to resort to costly and lengthy court proceedings, although this was a course of action the Board and the Civil Recovery Unit would have taken, and had been ready to take, had it proved necessary.

A Minute of Agreement was signed and lodged in September 2007 and thereafter the defrauded sums were repaid which includes the £812,827 paid to the Board as detailed above.

As you will appreciate the period from the initial enquiry in 2004 to the final recovery of fraudulently claimed funds in 2007 involved considerable time and a number of Board staff dedicated to investigate this matter adequately. Initially the focus was on Mr Muir's own firm but as the enquiry widened other cases in respect of Accounts paid to Sneddon Morrison were also considered. Much of 2005 was devoted to the retrieval of information and during this time the Board liaised closely with the Civil Recovery Unit to ensure all assets were identified and all sums that could be classified as fraudulently claimed were repaid.

It is of course a matter of regret that Mr Muir died during the investigation but consequently the nature of the enquiry changed from one in respect of fraud to recovery.

It took some months for the Board to establish the extent of the fraud as it did for the Executor of the late Mr Muir's estate to in-gather sums and to realise assets: this meant that work on this case continued throughout 2006. The Board and the Civil Recovery Unit agreed figures for repayment from both the Estate and the Partners of Sneddon Morrison, and this process of negotiation—which took some months and active involvement of the Board's senior management—was successfully concluded in 2007 when the fraudulent sums were finally repaid.

The fraud was initially identified as a result of the Board's implementing a new process for internal review of Legal Aid expenditure: that process highlighted the activities of Mr Muir. The Board has a proactive counter fraud culture. This includes the on-site audit of all firms and solicitor registered for Criminal Legal Assistance, an Accounts Verification Unit with access to the Scottish Court Service system to enable third party verification, a process that can also adopted in respect of the Scottish Prison Service and Police Offices. In addition there is an imbedded Analysis and Management Information unit within the Board that actively monitors trends in Legal Aid expenditure by firm and individual solicitors highlighting any changes or anomalies that require further clarification or enquiry.

The Agreement: MINUTE OF AGREEMENT between 

(1) THE SCOTTISH LEGAL AID BOARD, 44 Drumsheugh Gardens, Edinburgh, EH3 7SW and

(2) THE CIVIL RECOVERY UNIT, on behalf of the Scottish Ministers, 25 Chambers Street, Edinburgh and

(3) MESSRS SNEDDON MORRISON, Solicitors, formerly Sneddons SSC, a firm of solicitors having a place of business at Clydesdale Bank Chambers, 16 East Main Street, Whitburn, EH47 ORY and


(5) MRS SUSAN MUIR qua Executrix of the iate James Hamilton Gibb Muir SSC

Whereas the parties wish to resolve their dispute regarding the repayment of sums paid from the Scottish Legal Aid Fund to Messrs Sneddon Morrison, Solicitors, formerly Sneddons SSC, and James Muir SSC, deceased, they have agreed as follows:

(1) Messrs Sneddon Morrison, Solicitors, formerly Sneddons SSC, will pay the sum of £259,941,70 to the Scottish Legal Aid Board with immediate effect.

(2) Messrs Sneddon Morrison, Solicitors, formerly Sneddons SSC, will make payment of the sum of £87,000 to the Civil Recovery Unit, on behalf of the Scottish Ministers, with immediate effect.

(3) Messrs Sneddon Morrison, Solicitors, formerly Sneddons SSC, withdraw, waive and renounce any claim or right of relief which may lie against Mrs Susan Muir or the estate of the late James Muir, and further waive all claims for payment of any other sums which may be due to the firm of Sneddon Morrison, Solicitors, formerly Sneddons SSC, from Mrs Susan Muir or the late James Muir or his estate by way of partnership accounting or any other reason.

(4) Mrs Susan Muir qua Executrix will make payment of the sum of £519,061.84 to the Scottish Legal Aid Board as soon as reasonably practicable, and no later than 2 months from the date of signing this agreement. . /

(5) Susan Muir-will arrange for the dwellinghouse to be marketed for sale within 1 month of the date of this agreement, in the event that such steps have not already been initiated by her prior to signature of this agreement.

(6) Susan Muir will make payment of the sum of £884,000 to the Civil Recovery Unit, on behalf of the Scottish Ministers, from the free proceeds of the sale of that dwellinghouse and from monies within her late husband's estate being the balance after payment of those sums identified as payable to the Scottish Legal Aid Board and from monies within such accounts and/or other investments as are directly related to savings or investments from the late Mr Muir's earnings from the Scottish Legal Aid Fund. Where any portion of that sum is derived from.the free proceeds of sale of the dwellinghouse, payment of that portion will be made within 4 months of the date of signing this agreement. Where any portion of that sum is derived from any other sources, payment will be made within 2 months of the date of signing this agreement.

(7) Susan Muir, as an individual and qua executrix withdraws, waives and renounces any claim or right of relief which may lie against the firm of Sneddon Morrison, Solicitors, formerly Sneddons SSC, and the whole partners thereof.

(8) All payments made under this agreement are net of VAT, and any refund of VAT made to either Messrs Sneddon Morrison, Solicitors, formerly Sneddons SSC, or Susan Muir, qua executrix or otherwise, in respect of the payments which are the subject of this agreement, shall be paid to the Scottish Legal Aid Board. Any refund of Income Tax made to Susan Muir, qua executrix or otherwise, in respect of the payments which are the subject of this agreement, shall be paid to the Scottish Legal Aid Board.

­(9) The Scottish Legal Aid Board and the Civil Recovery Unit, on behalf of the Scottish Ministers, discharge the parties to this agreement of the respective claims against said parties upon payment in full of all sums due to them in terms of clauses 1, 2, 4 and 6 by those parties under this agreement.

(10) The above agreement is without prejudice to the right of the Scottish Legal Aid Board and the Civil Recovery Unit, on behalf of the Scottish Ministers, to initiate appropriate proceedings in the event that any party fails to make payment as agreed upon.

(11) The Scottish Legal Aid Board by Tom Crighton Murray, Director of Legal Services and Applications, at Edinburgh on the Seventh day of September Two Thousand and Seven; and they are signed on behalf of the said Civil Recovery Unit, on behalf of the Scottish Ministers, by Lorna Hams, Head of the Civil Recovery Unit, at Edinburgh on the Seventh day of September Two Thousand and Seven in the presence of Claire Meikle, witness, of Victoria Quay, Edinburgh; and they are signed on behalf of the said Messrs Sneddon Morrison, SSC, by Roy Donald Lumsden, Eric Robert Lumsden, David Andrew Johnstone and James Morrison, four of their partners, and the said James Morrison has adhibited the firm name of Sneddon Morrison & Co, all at Whitburn, West Lothian on the Fourth day of September Two Thousand and Seven in the presence of Graeme Alexander Laird, witness, of West Main Street, Whitburn; and they are signed by the said Susan Muir, as an individual, at Glasgow on the Sixth day of September Two Thousand and Seven in the presence of William Couperthwaite Macreath, witness, of 266 St Vincent Street, Glasgow, G2 5RL; and they are signed by the said Susan Muir, qua Executrix of the late James Hamilton Gibb Muir SSC, at Glasgow on the Sixth day of September Two Thousand and Seven in the presence of William Couperthwaite Macreath, witness, of 266 St Vincent Street, Glasgow, G2 5RL.

Further reports & investigations on Legal Aid Fraud can be read here: Legal Aid Fraud - Prosecutors & Legal Aid Chiefs operate inconsistent policy on pursuing legal aid cheats