The post of Scotland’s Judicial Complaints Reviewer was created in 2008 as a way of adding a layer of accountability into the judiciary.
Under the new system, members of the public could ask for a review of the way complaints about the conduct of a judge or sheriff had been handled internally. The JCR’s job was not to investigate members of the judiciary, but instead examine whether the complaint had been handled in accordance with the rules.
The first post-holder, Moi Ali, was frustrated by the role’s limitations and fought to enhance her access to papers during her reviews. She also won the right to publish an annual report of her activities.
However, even after these battles, Ali found that the restrictions were too great and quit in 2014.
In an interview with this newspaper, she said she had found the job “enormously frustrating and difficult”, noting: “Fundamentally the problem is the legislation ... it’s judges judging judges’ conduct. I’m presented as the independent element, but without the powers I can’t be independent.
“Really, it’s difficult to make an impact within the constraints that I’m in at the moment. It’s a bit like being in a straitjacket.”
Her successor, Gillian Thompson, did not have a strong public profile in the role and she attracted negative publicity. In particular, her failure to publish an annual report in the first two years was criticised on the grounds that releasing such a document was considered to be a basic element of transparency. However, she recently published two such reports and it is hard not to sympathise with her now.
According to Thompson, the fact she is only contracted to work up to three days a month inhibits her ability to do a good job: “I remain of the view that managing a demand-led service within a restricted number of days inevitably means delay in responsiveness and inevitable concern and inconvenience for complainants.” She was also blunt about the effects on her own performance: “The singleton nature of the role together with the limited number of contracted days results in a poor service, relatively speaking.”
Thompson went on to reveal she had even been unable to take telephone calls on account of problems with a planned upgrade of her Government Blackberry. In a bleak conclusion, she wrote: “I recommend that Scottish ministers review the relevance of the role as it exists.”
Thompson’s report is a damning indictment of the lack of support provided by the Scottish Government. If ministers were not prepared to fully fund the JCR, they should not have created the role in the first place.
Ali, and now Thompson, have hit out at the limitations of a post that should be providing oversight of Scotland’s judges, sheriffs and justices of the peace. The legislation should be reviewed – and the resources beefed up.