Lawyers gather to hear what the European Court of Justice thinks about us

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REPORTS that the European Court of Justice is determined to interfere in the affairs of the United Kingdom are inaccurate.

More than that, the 180-strong audience at today’s Scottish Public Law Group (SPLG) conference in Edinburgh will hear that Scots Law is held in high regard in Strasbourg.

Paul Harvey and Michelle Lafferty will take part in the event. Both Scots lawyers, they are two of the six-member group of lawyers working on British cases, including drafting of decisions, in the registry of the court.

Harvey says it is a two-way street. “There have been a very few judgments on specifically Scottish cases but I think it isn’t really appreciated how Scots judges and Scots judgments have been influential in the thinking of the court.”

Strasbourg decisions that brought an end to slopping out in Scottish prisons and, more recently, said that a convicted murderer should receive compensation for the unacceptable delays in processing his appeal against conviction, were not entirely popular.

However, Harvey will tell the conference that courts elsewhere have commented favourably on the way Scottish courts have embedded human rights practice in their thinking. He cites the approach of the courts to hearsay in criminal trials, and balancing individual rights and public interest in retaining DNA records within a national database of people who have not been convicted of a crime.

“Scots judges and judgments are influential at both a formal and informal level. I think the message is to ‘keep calm and keep applying the convention’ ”.

Today’s Scottish Public Law Group conference is its largest event to date and has been entirely sold out.

Steering group member Jennifer Jack says: “The money raised allows us to put on at least three free events on topical issues throughout the year, most recently on issues around end-of-life decisions and on women in the law. Both of them attracted well over 100 attendees.”

The Scottish Public Law Group does not have to search for issues to address in today’s workshops. This is a time of unprecedented reform of the legal system in Scotland.

The radical reforms suggested by the Scottish Civil Courts Review in 2009 are now being realised in legislation. Radical reform of court rules is to be expected following the creation this month of the Scottish Civil Justice Council.

The Government is consulting on closing a number of sheriff courts in the knowledge that proposals for a second wave of closures is on its way. Sheriff Principal Taylor’s expenses review is likely to be published this month. Legislation is currently going through the Scottish Parliament to reform the Scottish Tribunal System.

The pace of change is such that it can seem bewildering to people working within the system, but what about the consumer? Sarah O’Neill, legal and consumer policy consultant, will look at the reforms from that perspective.

The UK’s continued membership of the EU has again come to the forefront of the political agenda, with the Prime Minister promising that a referendum on continued membership will be held by 2017. A private member’s bill is due to be introduced in Westminster on 19 June this year.

Continued membership of the EU is also a key issue being discussed in relation to the other big referendum on the horizon, on Scottish independence, next September. Strong views have been expressed on the one hand by the UK government, and in particular by the Advocate General Jim Wallace QC, while Sir David Edward, formerly UK judge to the Court of Justice of the European Union, has publicly expressed a different view. Lord Wallace and Sir David are to go head to head discussing issues arising from these two referenda this afternoon.

Today’s event will see Anna Poole QC stepping down from office with the SPLG. She is the last of the founding members still on the steering group. She will be replaced by the outgoing Law Clerk to the Lord President, Julius Komorowski.