To wear the robes of a High Court judge and preside over Scotland’s most notable criminal and civil legal cases in the High Court and the Court of Session is the highest achievement of a long and distinguished career.
However, the country’s top judge has now warned that courts have been sitting with a reduced number of judges for a year because there have been no applicants from the lower ranks sufficiently qualified to fill a vacant post
Lord Hamilton, the Lord President and Lord Justice General of Scotland, also said they were being “remunerated significantly less than they were five or seven years ago” because of a pay freeze.
He said cost-cutting measures were a cause for concern and warned that any move towards “cheaper judges” must be accompanied by a drive to ensure courts “get the right people in the right jobs”.
Despite collecting an average of £187,624 a year -- a figure that compares with the £128,296 earned by sheriffs -- he said the freeze gave rise to a “number of problems, not least of which is how do we ensure that we encourage the best people qualified for the post to apply to be senators of the college of justice”.
Lord Hamilton told Holyrood’s Justice Committee: “One of the problems that we had last year was that there was a competition.
“But the board, having interviewed some of these persons, found that none of those who applied were suitable for appointment. So we’ve been in a situation where we have been running one judge short for the last year or so.”
About 40% of the courts’ budget goes on wages with the same proportion spent on building maintenance and he warned that some courts may have to be closed to cut maintenance costs.
Lord Hamilton said: “Some of these buildings are rather old, so therefore the maintenance costs have increased.
“What we’ve begun, and we’re only at the very early stages of it, is looking at what we really want by way of provision of court buildings in the 21st century.
“Most of them are 19th century and they were created and built in the places where they were created because of the state of the community of that time, including questions of travel and so on.”
Some sheriff courts and justice of the peace courts have already been amalgamated into a single building and Lord Hamilton said they were seeking to do this more, particularly in Glasgow, which he called “the biggest prize”.
He added: “It may be at some stage we will have to come to the Parliament and say we think that certain steps should be taken, perhaps even closing some courts in the future.”
Lord Hamilton contrasted his view with one given to the committee by Richard Keen, Dean of the Faculty of Advocates.
He said: “In the last session the dean of faculty used the metaphor of musical chairs. I don’t think we’ve got a situation where chairs are being taken off one at a time. What I do think is that we’ll have the same number of chairs but they will be smaller chairs which are less comfortable to sit in.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Judicial salaries are set through the UK Senior Salaries Review Board and are currently subject to a pay freeze, and we expect this to continue into next year.”
How judges are appointed
SCOTLAND has a two-tier system for judicial appointments, where sheriffs can go on to become Judges of the Court of Session or the High Court of the Justiciary if they wish.
They must apply for the posts, but to become a sheriff you must first have been legally qualified and working as either an advocate or a solicitor for at least 10 years.
Full-time sheriffs cannot be employed in a private practice or business, or be in partnership with someone who is. Part-time sheriffs are allowed to continue in private firms.
Government employees, such as those who work for the Government Legal Service for Scotland or the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service must resign if they wish to become a sheriff.
Sheriffs who have served for at least five years are eligible to apply for further judicial office with the Court of Session or High Court. Also eligible are advocates of at least five years’ standing or solicitors who have right of audience with either the Court of Session or the High Court of Justiciary, also for five years.
All applicants then go through a selection process governed by the Board of Judicial Appointments for Scotland. According to the Ministry of Justice, sheriffs currently earn £128,296 a year.