Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Thursday 4 May 2006

Is the independence of the Scottish judiciary in jeopardy?

I have until now been completely unaware of the radical change planned by the Scottish Executive in the way the judiciary in Scotland is organised. However the ever-excellent Joshua Rozenberg has an article on just this topic in today's Telegraph in which he writes that the plans involve giving:

"Scotland a unified judiciary appointed by a statutory board"
"amalgamating [the] four existing court structures: the High Court, which hears criminal cases and appeals; the Court of Session, which decides civil claims and appeals; the sheriff courts, which have criminal and civil jurisdiction; and the district courts, which are broadly similar to magistrates' courts in England and Wales."

To an amateur eye (such as mine) that does not sound unduly troubling in itself, but other parts of the plans would involve changes to the way in which the whole structure is managed and the way in which those selected to manage that changed structure would be chosen, as Scottish ministers will (as reported in Joshua Rozenberg's article):

"be able to issue "guidance" to the board [*] on, for example, encouraging diversity. And who will appoint the members of [the] board? 'All appointments will be made by Scottish Ministers,' the consultation paper says."

[*] - a new 'independent' appointments board

I don't pretend to understand all the ramifications of what is being proposed, but Roy Martin, QC, dean of the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh (equivalent to chairman of the Bar in England and Wales), seems to have a number of concerns:

"If you concentrate power at the top of the pyramid in the office of the Lord President, while at the same time the administration which serves the Lord President is not sufficiently independent of the executive, then the risk is that the absence of the perception of independence thereby affects the courts at all levels."

These changes now seem to take on a whole new and potentially sinister aspect. As Rozenberg says in his final paragraph:

"So what are the chances that Scottish judges will be as independent this time next year as they are now? Don't hold your breath."

The authoritarian instinct seems to guide our Labour-dominated Scottish Executive just as much as it is clear it always has the Labour Government in Westminster. Sigh.

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