John Forsyth gets a sneak preview of the ‘world-class’ Judicial Institute for Scotland
IN HIS speech at the start of the legal year last September, Lord President, Lord Gill, made particular mention of the importance of Scotland’s judges not only keeping up to date with the ever-growing mountain of new legislation and case law, but also ensuring they are up to speed with courtroom technology and case-management expectations.
“Judicial training is not simply an optional extra for the judiciary,” he said. “We have an obligation individually and collectively to ensure that we maintain a professional approach throughout our judicial life.”
Lord Gill announced that judicial training would be brought literally in house. It would have a new name, the Judicial Institute for Scotland, befitting its enhanced standing, to succeed its previous incarnation as the Judicial Studies Committee.
The formal grand opening of the institute and unveiling of its purpose-built “learning space” within Parliament House will take place on Friday. But in advance of the fanfare and speeches, the director of the institute, Sheriff Tom Welsh, deputy director Sheriff Alistair Duff, and head of education Jessica Henderson were keen to show off the bells, whistles, learning pods, touchscreens, interactive whiteboards, and video-conferencing capacity of what, allowing for due shrieval modesty, they think is “a world-class facility”.
“You will struggle to find this exceeded in any other judicial training facility in any other jurisdiction,” said Sheriff Duff.
Scotland has not always jostled for a place in the vanguard of formalised judicial training. Advocates or solicitors could find themselves on their first day in office presiding over a trial in the High Court or sheriff court without previously having set foot in a criminal court. They were expected to learn on the job. Judicial training was led in the 1970s and ’80s by Australia, New Zealand and Canada. In 1997 Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Forsyth instructed the creation of a judicial studies committee.
“It has been a 15-year journey,” said Sheriff Welsh. “Prior to 1997 there was effectively no formal training as such. The sheriffs’ association took on some training in the 1980s and ’90s but that tended to be organising visits to prison or arranging talks. We began to take it increasingly seriously. We saw what others were doing and listened to what our judicial office holders told us they thought would be most useful to them. We learned what is needed to create bespoke, relevant, modern, accessible judicial training for judges.”
The journey has ended at floor -2 of Parliament House in a facility designed for training all judicial holders, from senators of the College of Justice to justices of the peace.
Sheriff Welsh said: “Everything is imbued with the principles of adult education. The plectrum-shaped tables are designed to facilitate interaction among groups of judges. The L-shaped room can be converted into big or small spaces; IT can be configured in different ways. The benches at the end of either leg of the room are fitted with the technology you will find in courts across Scotland and are linked to another room to give practice in relation to evidence that may be given remotely by vulnerable witnesses. This is a training space and training is a part of judicial life.”
Head of education Jessica Henderson has clearly been “imbuing” to considerable effect. “The purpose of the new learning technology is to support collaborative learning. The ‘pods’ are specifically designed for precisely that, so we can incorporate the experiential learning model with a transformative learning model. In educational terms these mock courts are an authentic learning environment. When I’ve gone out and spoken to judges they have been very clear they want us to focus on what they do in court.”
The face-to-face learning will be complemented by virtual learning. “We will be able to respond electronically very quickly and to all judges in Scotland simultaneously when a new issue arises, an important judgment for example, while we are developing a module that we can roll out later.”
It is all very impressive and it has not come cheaply – somewhere to the north of £600,000 – but Sheriff Welsh is quick to insist the facility will result in savings relatively soon.
“Historically we have done training in hotels on two or three-day residential courses,” he said. “That is extremely expensive. They can’t possibly have the facilities that we have designed into the fabric of this suite. We aim to recover the costs in around three years, but more importantly, what we are offering will be infinitely more effective.”
The facility is about more than furniture and IT. Sheriff Duff said: “The big advantage of having most training in Parliament House is that senior judges can engage and take part in training. It is difficult to overestimate the impact on the participants in a course when a senator or Lord President or Lord Justice Clerk can drop in for half an hour before or after court and without interfering with their court commitments. That is just not possible when the course is taking place in Dunblane or elsewhere.”
Scotland’s hydro hotels’ loss will be justice’s gain.
Other members of the legal profession are required to clock up a certain amount of CPD (continuing professional development) every year – 12 hours for solicitors and ten for advocates. Is there an equivalent requirement for judges?
Sheriff Welsh said: “We do have continuing professional development. It isn’t compulsory but I have not encountered any reluctance among judges to opt in for training. Induction training is compulsory for every new judge. Once the appointment is announced I will have a personal meeting with the candidate and discuss what his or her training needs are. I can bring the deputy or the head of education in and we will develop a bespoke programme.
“You can have someone who is experienced – perhaps has been a part-time sheriff for five or more years. We would tailor their requirements accordingly. For someone with absolutely no judicial experience we would give them a five day-course, then a week sitting in with a sheriff to observe at close quarters. Then we will appoint a mentor who will be able to advise and share their experience. That is the launchpad from which the modern tyro judge begins their career. New senators get exactly the same. They have a mentor. They have the opportunity and take the opportunity to sit in with another senator.”
Sheriff Duff added: “I would say the induction programme is often more about the judgecraft skills they will need to show that they are less familiar with – such as issues of case management, controlling a court, responding to problems that can emerge in court. The judge has an obligation to justice in each case but also an obligation to get through the caseload efficiciently.
“There is more to the work of the JSI than the creation of this suite, important as it is. Its effectiveness has to be seen in our courtrooms.”
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