SCOTLAND'S sheriffs and judges are among the country's most distinguished professionals, and they are rightly respected for the important job they do in presiding over complex legal cases and ensuring justice prevails.
In a democratic society, however, scrutiny is essential and when the appointment of the country's first Judicial Complaints Reviewer was announced, it seemed a welcome step towards ensuring accountability among these highly-paid and powerful men and women.
Moi Ali was appointed in September 2011 and her website promises a "totally independent, impartial and free service for anyone unhappy with the way their complaint about a member of the judiciary (judges, sheriffs and Justices of the Peace) has been handled by the Judicial Office for Scotland".
After two years in the job, however, she is clearly frustrated with the role and is calling for a complete overhaul of the way judicial complaints are handled.
Effectively, complaints against judges are investigated by their peers and the new watchdog role was supposed to bring an element of independent scrutiny to a system which amounted to self-policing. However, progress appears to have occurred only at the margins.
As Moi Ali tells our investigations editor today, she lacks resources and powers and has described her own post as little more than "window dressing". More importantly, she has also criticised the system of self-regulation that allows judges to investigate their colleagues. In many areas of public life, including the press, in-house complaints systems are deemed untenable and are being swept away.
Ali is to be commended for having the courage to speak out on shortcomings that risk undermining public trust in the justice system. Given that citizens have recourse to a fully-staffed Ombudsman in England who can seek redress, it seems incomprehensible Scots should be expected to make do with one under-resourced, part-time post. It is of concern that she is expected to provide a first-class service on an annual budget of £2000.
She also says she is baffled by the Scottish Government's failure to reform a system that lags behind England's. We share her puzzlement. With major criminal justice reforms in the pipeline, including the proposed abolition of corroboration, the judiciary faces a taxing time and it should have the wherewithal to rise to the challenge. As important as the referendum on independence is, reform of devolved areas cannot be put on hold until next Sepetmber.
Like other public servants, judges need a regime to scrutinise that commands public confidence. Creating a genuinely independent complaints system should be seen as an opportunity, not a threat. The Government must revisit this area and legislate for a watchdog service that is truly fit for purpose.
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