Tom Gordon

Scottish Political Editor

A TAXPAYER-funded legal quango criticised for sending officials on lavish overseas ‘junkets’ is spending thousands of pounds on a trip to New Zealand, the Sunday Herald can reveal.

The Scottish Justices Association (SJA), which represents the country’s 400 Justices of the Peace, came under fire last year for sending its secretary on a £3000 jaunt to Zambia.

Organised by the Commonwealth Magistrates’ and Judges’ Association (CMJA), the five-day conference took place next to Victoria Falls, with a whole day set aside for sightseeing.

One SJA board member called it a “gross use of public funds”, another a “junket”.

Despite the row, the SJA, which is 100 per cent funded by an annual grant from the Scottish Government, has this week sent chairman John Lawless to Wellington.

His attendance at a five-day CMJA conference in the Kiwi capital will cost £3500.

The gathering, which starts today, has the dry official title “Independent Judiciaries, Diverse Societies”.

However the conference brochure promotes Wellington as “the world’s ‘coolest little capital’... known for its vibrant arts scene, world class cafe and restaurant culture, and active outdoor lifestyle”.

Its “craft beer producers are internationally recognised”, it adds.

Besides legal seminars, the agenda includes two evening receptions, a gala dinner, and a final day set aside for a “fantastic visit by train to Wairarapa Region”.

The latter includes visits to “Puhaka Mount Bruce to see the extremely rare white Kiwi Bird”, a vintage aviation museum, and an art and history museum to learn about Maori life.

Lawless also attended CMJA conferences in Malaysia in 2011 at a cost of £2056 and Uganda in 2012 at a cost of £1749, producing two reports totalling 1300 words on his return.

In recent years, other senior SJA members have been to CMJA conferences in Bermuda, South Africa and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

One legal source said of the NZ trip: “It’s a waste of money. The SJA doesn’t seem interested in conferences in Scotland or Europe because they don’t seem important enough. But the CMJA is seen as prestigious because it involves the Commonwealth.”

Leaked draft minutes of a recent SJA executive meeting record another JP pulled out of the Wellington conference, and Lawless, a JP in Glasgow and Strathkelvin, then stepped in.

“No one volunteered and the Chairman then advised the Meeting that in the absence of any volunteers he would represent the SJA at the Conference in New Zealand. The meeting agreed without demur to the Chairman’s attendance.”

Independent MSP John Wilson said: “When courts are being closed to make savings, the SJA should be more mindful of public perception before spending £3500 on a trip to New Zealand.”

Speaking before his flight out, Lawless said: “As a delegate to the CMJA, I am expected to participate in conference activities and produce a report on my return. This is then distributed to our membership and beyond. Some of the topics to be discussed this year are of particular interest to Scottish JPs, such as a session on the future role of the Lay Judiciary. Attendance is valuable in terms of education and information sharing across the Commonwealth.”