SCOTLAND’S most senior judge, Lord Carloway, told MSPs yesterday that a register of interests for Scotland’s judiciary would be a “powerful disincentive” to the recruitment of judges.

The Lord President made history yesterday when he gave evidence and answered questions at the Public Petitions Committee’s meeting in the Holyrood Parliament. He was the first serving Lord President to speak to the committee, four-and-a-half years after legal campaigner and blogger Peter Cherbi first lodged his petition for a register of judicial interests.

Under questioning by SNP MSP Angus MacDonald, who asked why judges should not register their interests as MSPs have to do, Lord Carloway replied: “A judge or sheriff is indeed, like many people, the holder of a public office but the critical distinction between a judge and, for example, MSPs is that the judge has to be independent of any form of government, so one is in the exact opposite position from the political dimension.

“The system we have … has an international reputation for fairness and for not being corrupt which is something we are extremely keen to protect.”

The Lord President continued: “We in Scotland do not have a career judiciary.

“We recruit our judges and sheriffs from people who are generally – not exclusively, but generally – from private practice and they are recruited in their 40s and 50s, perhaps sometimes even a little later, so far as the senior judiciary are concerned.

“We have a relatively small pool of lawyers of excellence who are capable of taking on the job of being a member of our senior judiciary.

“You may be aware that there are certain problems at the moment in relation to the recruitment of, particularly, the senior judiciary because of certain steps which have been taken relative to pay and pensions generally.

“Therefore, we have particular difficulties with recruitment at the moment.

“If I were to say to senior members of the profession – which they are – before they are recruited into the judiciary: ‘By the way, if you wish to become a judge you will have to declare all your pecuniary interests and open them to public scrutiny’, I have no doubt whatsoever that that would act as a powerful disincentive for lawyers of experience and skill becoming members of the judiciary.

“I can assure the committee, we need them more than they need us.”

SNP MSP Alex Neil questioned whether it should be left to a judge only to decide whether they would “recuse” themselves from a case if there was a potential conflict of interest.

“Is the system not balanced against those people who come to court for justice?” he said.

Lord Carloway responded: “No, it is not. If one is introducing this kind of measure, you have to be satisfied really that it is necessary and that it is proportionate.

“Until such time as it’s demonstrated that there is corruption within the Scottish judiciary, I’m entirely satisfied that there is no requirement for a register of interests and that it would be positively detrimental to the administration of justice, particularly in relation to the recruitment of judges and especially at the higher level of the judiciary.”

Former judicial complaints reviewer Moi Ali told The National last night: “I hold judges in high esteem for the important work they do, but I regret to say that Lord Carloway did a great disservice to the judiciary in his evidence to the Petitions Committee.

“The fact is that the judiciary do not wish to be open and transparent, and choose to present themselves as a special case. It seems to me that if a register is required to be completed by MPs, MSPs and public board members, then it must also be required of the judiciary.

“My opinion is not founded on a belief that judges are corrupt, rather, it comes from the view that transparency builds trust and confidence. As a society, we must be able to have complete confidence in our judiciary – and that starts with their openness and transparency.”

Peter Cherbi confirmed he will be writing to the Committee. He said: “Transparency apparently stops at the doors of our courts and that’s it. Judges are to remain judges in their own cause and we shouldn’t have a register of interests until there is a scandal. That’s not on in 2017.

“Why does transparency inhibit the recruitment of judges? All other branches of public life have registers of interest and do just fine on recruitment.

“Lord Carloway is really struggling with this one. And, in any case, given some of the stories coming out of the legal profession, a register of interests is badly needed for them, too.”