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Scotland's top judge offers tiny concession as calls grow for judicial transparency

S COTLAND'S top judge, who refuses to back a register of interest for members of the judiciary, has conceded a minor reform to boost transparency.

Lord Gill refused to attend Holyrood's Public Petitions CommitteePhotograph: PA
Lord Gill refused to attend Holyrood's Public Petitions CommitteePhotograph: PA

The Lord President, currently Lord Gill, is looking at pulling together information about judges declining to rule on cases due to a perceived conflict of interest.

MSPs who have criticised the lack of openness in the judiciary welcomed the shift in direction.

Holyrood's Public Petitions Committee is considering a proposal that would require judges and sheriffs to file a register of financial interests, which could include shareholdings and directorships.

Unlike other public servants such as MPs, MSPs and quango board members, judicial office-holders do not have to give details of their outside interests.

Gill, head of the Judicial Office for Scotland, told MSPs last year there were "sufficient safeguards" in place to ensure judicial impartiality.

He added that a register could infringe a judge's "freedom from harassment" from "aggressive media or hostile individuals".

The row deepened after Gill refused to give oral evidence to the committee: MSPs cannot legally compel a judge to attend.

As a compromise, committee convener Dave Stewart MSP and his deputy Chic Brodie held a private meeting with Gill at Holyrood.

At last week's Public Petitions Committee, Stewart revealed progress had been made with Gill.

He said the senior judge, while maintaining his opposition to a register of financial interests, had promised to "check whether the IT systems can be adapted to provide aggregate information about recusals".

A recusal is when a judge takes himself off a case due to a perceived conflict of interest. No list of them exists, but Gill is looking at pulling together the information.

Stewart added that such an outcome would mean "ordinary individuals with an interest here could find out how many recusals there were across Scotland".

He said that Gill would write to MSPs with further details.

Jackson Carlaw, a Tory member of the committee, said at the meeting: "But for the belligerence of this committee in pursuing the issue, there would be no letter forthcoming, and there would be no investigation. I think it rather vindicates the tenacity with which we pursued the matter."

However, SNP MSP John Wilson, who also sits on the committee, had concerns about the private meeting.

He told the committee it "should not be in a position to hold private discussions with individuals who we ask evidence from".

Wilson also asked for the note of the meeting to be made public.

A spokeswoman for the Judicial Office for Scotland said: "The Lord President is examining whether it is possible to capture the information on formal recusal to enable it to be made public.

"The Lord President will write to the convener [Stewart] in due course and no further comment can be made at this time."

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