By Ian Hamilton QC
(This piece first appeared in The Firm, the on line legal magazine.)
Whoever wrote the Lord President’s speech is to be congratulated. He, she, it (It? Maybe it was a computer) done good. Hardly anybody was left out. When you start off:-
“:My lords and my ladies, Lord Advocate, Dean of Faculty, Advocate General, Solicitor General, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,”
you have a pretty comprehensive audience in mind. Except for the general public whom you are there to serve.
To lighten the whole solemn occasion the speech-writer ends with a jokey passage on drunkenness at which everyone present chuckled. We advocates are trained to laugh at judge’s jokes. It’s the way they tell them.
Any speech on our law raises some questions which are never answered. Here are some of them.
Why can’t we afford it? Why can the RBS get away with my money without the law calling them to account? All I want is an accounting. I tried and the law failed me. I can’t afford it. They can.
Why have we refurbished court-rooms in the centre of a medieval town awash with tourists? Even if we could afford to go to the Court of Session how could we afford the travel and the hotel bills while we’re litigating?
Why do we have local sheriff courts with the same civil function as the Court of Session in Edinburgh? This was necessary when communication was difficult but things have changed. Even judges can learn email. They can take a bus. If judges can come on circuit to hear criminal cases why not to hear civil cases? No business could be run on the basis if you want us you must come to us. Justice is a business. It should be brought to us. A court in a fixed place was necessary in 1531 but communications have moved on since then. Has the Lord President’s speech writer not noticed the busses in Edinburgh’s High Street? Can’t he use an email?
What are sheriff principals for? Once they administered their sheriffdoms but no longer. They are single judges of appeal who can themselves be appealed to the Court of Session. Mind you! We lawyers prefer a three course meal when two would do.
Why do we pay sheriffs £120,000 a year to hear petty crime which could be done for nothing by magistrates elected by ourselves? That was the way it was once done. Since we don’t need two concurrent civil jurisdictions could we not send our sheriffs back to their sandpits to play in?
For that matter isn’t it time that we separated civil judges from criminal ones both in the High Court and at lower levels? Each requires different skills.
Do we need all the judges we have managed to cram into our system? We have:- magistrates, sheriffs, sheriffs principal, Outer House Judges……(note how the capital letters creep in), Inner House Judges, Lords Commissioner of Justiciary and Lords of Appeal in Ordinary. (The latter’s kids go all swanky and call themselves ‘HONS.) Have I missed some? Judges multiply themselves like royalty and if you don’t watch you’ll tread on one.
Why hasn’t the speech-writer been given a knighthood? His chuckle about ‘churn’ was quite masterly. The laughter rolled round the ancient walls of the Parliament House like thunder.
In Benderloch we talk about little else.
I was hoping this ironic piece might provoke some comment on our legal system and the folly of puting a lawyer in charge of it. It is outdated. unsuitable for its purpose and a vast waste of money. This government adds to its folly under the impression that it can change public behaviour by act of parliament.
We need a new view. Lord Hamilton’s silly speech illustrates the trouble. It was addressed to the nice little nest of lawyers centred in the Parliament House for which the law at present exists.
MY LORDS AND My LADIES ETC it does not exist for you. It exists for us all. Alas we don’t have access to it except as accused taken there by the scruff of our necks.
Lord Hamilton! Have you no word for the like of me?