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Top judge takes control of funding for overseas trips after 'junkets' outcry

SCOTLAND'S top judge has ordered an immediate clampdown on judges, sheriffs and justices of the peace attending overseas conferences after a Sunday Herald story about JPs and a controversial £3000 "junket" to Africa.

Lord Gill, the Lord President and head of Scotland's judiciaryPhotograph: PA
Lord Gill, the Lord President and head of Scotland's judiciaryPhotograph: PA

Lord Gill, the Lord President and head of the country's judiciary, will exercise a personal veto over any publicly funded conference without a clear justification.

In future, all overseas trips funded by the Judicial Office for Scotland must be supported by a business case, and those attending must write a report on the event within a month for publication in an online legal library.

Gill's intervention comes just three weeks after the Sunday Herald revealed a rift at the top of the Scottish Justices Association (SJA) over its secretary's attendance at a five-day conference by Zambia's Victoria Falls. The whole of the last day at the Commonwealth Magistrates' and Judges' Association event has been set aside for sightseeing, including a "sunset cruise on the Zambezi River".

Group Captain Keith Parkes, a former RAF pilot who sits at Perth Sheriff and JP Court, and who proposed the key vote on the trip, is due to fly out to Livingstone in Zambia next month.

The decision prompted a backlash from some JPs on the association's executive, who denounced it as a "junket" and a "gross misuse of public funds", with three JPs threatening to quit.

In an edict issued last week, Lord Gill said he had been "reviewing the arrangements to control expenditure to meet attendance by the judiciary, especially where the conference is taking place outwith the United Kingdom".

As a result, and with "immediate effect", all future requests for conferences from judicial office-holders will require a business case identifying costs, "the benefit either to those attending or to the judiciary more widely", and "the likely impact on the efficient administration of business".

Stephen Humphreys, the executive director of the Judicial Office of Scotland, will then assess whether funds are available.

Gill said that, after the applications had been assessed for funding he will then consider all requests. He said: "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."

To ensure overseas trips do not become holidays, he concluded: "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 [an online library and training resource].

"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."

In recent years, sheriffs and judges have attended judicial training conferences in Barcelona, Budapest, Sydney, and Bordeaux.

Lord Gill, who is paid £218,470 a year, has also been on recent visits to South Africa, Taiwan and Qatar.

A spokesman for the Judicial Office for Scotland said: "The Judicial Office for Scotland holds a budget for the attendance at conferences and overseas travel by members of the judiciary in Scotland. New guidance was issued to ensure costs are controlled effectively, and the maximum benefit is gained from any attendance at conferences by the judiciary."

However, the rules will not apply to conferences paid for solely by the SJA.

"It only applies when a judicial office-holder is seeking funding from the budget the Judicial Office for Scotland holds," he added.

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