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Honorary Sheriffs

Volume 930: debated on Wednesday 27 April 1977

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asked the Lord Advocate whether he interviews honorary sheriffs-substitute before their appointment.

No, Sir. The appointment of honorary sheriffs rests entirely with sheriffs-principal.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the appointment of honorary sheriffs should not be confined to one narrow section of the community? Would it not be a good idea to ascertain their political affiliation, if any, before they are appointed? I get the impression that so many of them are reactionary Right-wing Tories that they are in danger of bringing the law into disrepute.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it in order for an hon. Member to impugn the motives of the judiciary?

No. It is not in order to impugn the motives of the judiciary. The hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) will have heard what I have said.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I was merely impugning the method of appointment of honorary sheriffs.

I should have thought that it was in the interests of justice that the Bench, whether honorary or otherwise, should be non-political and balanced in all respects and that it should truly reflect the community. The appointment of honorary sheriffs is not my responsibility. It has been devolved by Parliament to sheriffs-principal because it is believed that they are the best people to recruit suitable persons from the locality to assist the court, on a voluntary basis, with the business in hand. I have no reason to believe that sheriffs-principal exercise their discretion in other than a satisfactory way, having regard to the need for a balanced representation.

I noticed that my honorary Friend—I apologise: that was an indiscretion. I noticed that my honourable Friend asked in his original Question about honorary sheriffs-substitute. He will be aware that uder the Sheriff Courts (Scotland) Act 1971 their correct title is now honorary sheriffs.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that arising out of a certain case on which my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth (Mr. Ewing) has been extremely helpful and which is well known to the Scottish Office, which has also been helpful, some of us have grace doubts about whether trials of police officers in matters that affect their careers should take place other than before experienced and senior sheriffs? I do not ask for an answer today, but will my right hon. and learned Friend look at the grave issues involved in this case?

The case to which my hon. Friend refers is sub judice and I can make no comment on it. My hon. Friend is referring to a case that was tried by a temporary sheriff and that raises considerations that are altogether different from those raised in the original Question about honorary sheriffs.

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman prepared to consider the appointment of full-time sheriffs-substitute? Is he satisfied with the proportion of appointments from the solicitor branch of the profession? Has there been a substantial increase in such appointments in the past few years?

There has been a substantial increase in such appointments in the past three years. The hon. Lady will accept that it is desirable to have a proper balance and in order to achieve this the correct course, which I have always sought to pursue, is to take various representatives of the legal profession into one's confidence, through consultations, to find out what they think is the appropriate proportion.

In the interests of justice manifestly being seen to be done, will my right hon. and learned Friend advise sheriffs-principal that they should consult a wider range of people before making recommendations about appointments? Is he aware that, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) said, there is a feeling in a number of areas of Scotland that honorary sheriffs are biased towards a certain class of person in the community?

It would not be appropriate for me to advise sheriffs-principal on appointments that are left to their discretion by Parliament, but no doubt they will note the comments made in the House.

Lest the question raised by the right hon. and learned Gentleman's honorary Friend-substitute, the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan), should cast any aspersion on the Bench, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that the tradition of political impartiality of the Bench in Scotland in all its aspects is as strong now as it was when the late Lord Braxfield sentenced to death his best friend, with whom he played chess, with the words:

"Well that's checkmate noo, Willy."?

I do not know whether it was checkmate, but I certainly agree in general with the hon. and learned Gentleman's sentiments.