Junior judges’ expenses claims will remain secret

Request to reveal claims made by Justices of the Peace rejected by information watchdog.

JPs are trained to deal with minor crimes. Google 2019
JPs are trained to deal with minor crimes.

Expenses paid to Scotland’s most junior judges will remain secret following a ruling by the information watchdog.

Justices of the Peace (JPs) don’t get paid but can claim travel and other costs. However, Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC) Daren Fitzhenry has rejected a freedom of information request to reveal details of individual claims.

JPs – who don’t have to be lawyers – are appointed from local communities and trained in criminal law to deal with crimes such as minor driving offences and breach of the peace.

Mr Fitzhenry believes publishing their expenses could have a “detrimental effect” and cause them “a degree of distress”.

He said there was “a clear distinction” between their voluntary role and salaried sheriffs and judges and they “may have had no expectation that their personal data would be disclosed”.

The SIC added that there “appears to be sufficient procedures in place to ensure adequate scrutiny of the expenses”.

SIC Daren Fitzhenry and Margaret Mitchell MSP.

The request was made by legal reform campaigner Peter Cherbi, whose petition for a judicial register of interests is backed by the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee.

He described the decision as “regressive, and effectively creates a separate rule of secrecy for JPs” as all other judges and sheriffs have published their expenses since 2009.

Mr Cherbi’s petition has already led to a public “recusals register” listing cases where judges stood down due to conflicts of interest, such as a personal or professional connections to those in the dock.

JPs were initially exempt when the register was introduced in 2014 but since being included last year, none have recused themselves.

Distress: Some of the reasons given for not releasing expenses.

Justice committee convener and Scottish Conservative MSP Margaret Mitchell last month told Holyrood: “The issue of JPs not being on the list seems strange, given that they are dealing with a local community and they could well have relevant connections there. That certainly seems like something that should be looked at further.”

According to the Judicial Office for Scotland (JOS) website there are around 450 JPs, but in response to Cherbi’s freedom of information request they said there was actually 248.

South Strathclyde, Dumfries & Galloway has the largest number with 71, while Tayside, Central & Fife has fewest with 24.

There are 161 male JPs while 87 are female. Of the six regions, Glasgow and Strathkelvin is the only one with more female (13) than male (12) JPs.

The judicial office also disclosed that in 2018/19, JPs received £193,210 from taxpayers, mostly for expenses, which was down from £205,914 the previous year.