Top judge attacks 'blinkered' judicial appointments system

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SCOTLAND'S longest-serving judge has attacked the way his fellow judges and sheriffs are appointed, accusing the body in charge of failing to do enough to weed out bad candidates.

Lord Osborne said the Judicial Appointments Board for Scotland had "set its face against" consulting other members of the legal profession when deciding who should become a judge or sheriff.

Lord Osborne, a senior appeal judge, and Lord Hamilton, the Lord President, yesterday gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament's justice committee, which is examining a bill proposing one of the biggest overhauls of the judiciary and courts in legal history.

Lord Osborne said: "It's my understanding that the board has set its face against making inquiries about how the individual candidate may have performed his professional or judicial responsibilities before that appointment arises.

"For example, if a sheriff is seeking appointment to a more senior judicial office, the board does not enquire of others how that sheriff has performed."

He added: "This is not a happy approach. You are blinkering yourself to sources of information I would have thought are highly valuable."

Lord Osborne suggested inferior candidates could get the job simply because they were better at interviews, adding: "The ability to interview well is not necessarily a guide to the ability to a job under consideration."

He highlighted the situation where a part-time sheriff applies for a full-time role, and pointed out that the sheriff principal would not be consulted to find out if the candidate was subject to any disciplinary proceedings.

"The part-time sheriff could be given a permanent appointment when there are outstanding complaints against them which were never brought to the attention of the appointments board. That doesn't seem to be a satisfactory situation."

He also criticised plans for an ombudsman to oversee the way the Lord President handles complaints against judges, adding: "If we cannot trust the Lord President of the Court of Session to observe the rules … then it is a sorry day."

Sir Neil McIntosh, chairman of the Judicial Appointments Board, said it carried out disclosure checks on candidates, adding: "We also check available information on candidates from the Law Society and Faculty of Advocates."

Meanwhile, Lord Hamilton, the country's most senior judge, yesterday criticised proposed new laws which would require temporary judges to be appointed by the board, insisting he should be able to "tap someone on the shoulder" in emergencies.

At present, the Lord President is in charge of appointing temporary judges, and does not have to consult the Judicial Appointments Board. Lord Hamilton said the proposed system would put people off applying for temporary judge posts.

He told MSPs that he wanted to see experienced advocates routinely becoming part-time judges to gain experience of the bench, adding: "In order to set that trend into place, I think I require to be able to go and tap on the shoulder rather than people filling out application forms."

Lord Hamilton also welcomed the provisions in the new legislation to place a statutory duty on the government to preserve the independence of the judiciary: "I think it's internationally recognised that this guarantee of continued judicial independence should be formally established within the constitutional structure.

"It's important as a symbol if nothing else that there's a recognition of judicial independence."

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