THEY are supposed to help keep the peace, but Scotland's justices have become embroiled in a row over a "junket" to Africa, the Sunday Herald can reveal.
The Scottish Justices Association (SJA), which represents the country's 400 Justices of the Peace, is split over a decision to send its secretary, Group Captain Keith Parkes, to a conference in Zambia. Parkes, a former RAF pilot who sits at Perth Sheriff and JP Court, and who proposed the key vote on the visit, is due to fly out in September.
Organised by the Commonwealth Magistrates' and Judges' Association (CMJA), the five-day event is being held in Livingstone, which calls itself "the tourist capital of Zambia", at the opulent Zambezi Sun Hotel next to Victoria Falls.
The main activity on the first day is an evening reception hosted by the Chief Justice of Zambia. There are then three days discussing "Judicial Independence: The Challenges of the Modern Era".
But the whole of the last day is for sightseeing, including a "sunset cruise on the Zambezi River".
The £3000 bill is equivalent to almost a fifth of the taxpayer-funded body's budget. The SJA has a "conference reserve" of £4695.
Amnesty International has said that Zambia's human rights record has deteriorated in recent years, with a "troubling pattern of repression of political opponents, civil society, independent media" and persecution of gays and lesbians.
Amid complaints that the trip is "a gross misuse of public funds", senior SJA members are now threatening to quit, including one who was censured for denouncing the trip as a "junket".
The SJA chose not to attend the CMJA conference last year, when it was held in Jersey.
The Zambia conference was first discussed by the SJA's executive in March. Treasurer Stuart Fair - who, like Parkes, sits in the Tayside, Central and Fife Sheriffdom - proposed sending a delegate, and was seconded by vice-chairman Robin White, of the same region.
However, the idea was opposed by Fraser Gillies, a JP in North Strathclyde, and Stewart Daniels, a JP for Glasgow and Strathkelvin.
The minutes stated: "Tom Finnigan [another North Strathclyde JP] stated that association members thought that such conferences were 'junkets' and that the executive was out of touch with its members."
The idea was rejected by eight votes to seven. However, two weeks ago, SJA chairman Allan Clasper ruled the vote was "not competent" under SJA rules, and announced a fresh vote. After what the minutes called "a frank discussion", Parkes proposed a vote in favour, seconded by White. This was passed seven to four with two abstentions.
The minutes said: "In the absence of any volunteers to go to the conference, it was agreed that the secretary would attend."
After the vote, Finnigan emailed fellow JPs and said he had been "censured" for calling the Zambia trip a junket. He added that he and two other North Strathclyde JPs who opposed it "felt it was gross misuse of public funds".
He said the three were "considering our position" on the executive and as members of the SJA.
Finnigan declined to comment.
Asked if the trip was a good use of public funds, Parkes said: "It's one thing we are expected to do, take part in conferences. The last day is not part of the conference and won't be taken by anybody. That's subject to extra funding."