21 September 2010

Astonishingly, Scotland's judiciary go digital...

In the popular imagination, judges are Triassic, Jurassic or Cretaceous figures. Like modernity's bewigged and gowned coelacanths, the Senators of the College of Justice glide through serene and timeless legal waters, stoutly patrician and overwhelmingly masculine. Today, a rebuke! Repelling submissions that they are fit museum pieces and jealously vindicating their vitality, they've set up a new website, the Judiciary of Scotland. This is not the bruisingly functional Scottish Courts page we're used to, but a self-conscious "bid to improve judicial communications with both the public and the media" replete with friendly pedagogical tone and some pretty little images snapped around legal Edinburgh. On the home page, the Lord President, Lord Hamilton, fixes us with a patriarchal gaze, hands clasped in a benign show of confidence and security. He leans forward slightly, confidingly, and writes:

"I am very pleased to welcome you to our new judicial website - a first for judges in Scotland. I hope that you find it both helpful and informative. It is our intention to publish as much information as we can, as quickly as we can. I believe it is vital in a democracy that justice is not only seen to be done, but that it operates in an open and transparent way and contributes to public understanding and awareness of what takes place in courts each day across Scotland."

The tone is informative and occasional whimsical. For instance, there is an amusingly elaborate section on "Addressing a Judge" whether in correspondence or in court. You can read about a "day in the life" of various tiers of judicial office holders, from Inner House judge to justices of the peace. There is also this irresistably blunt section on Court Room Etiquette which offers a few matey "tips" about how to behave:

  • Arrive in good time for your case, dressed appropriately and not under the influence of drink or drugs.
  • Remain quiet until your case is called.
  • Be polite and courteous to the judge, other court users and court officials.
  • Smoking, eating and drinking are not allowed in courtrooms.
  • You should not read in the courtroom unless asked to by the judge.
  • Taking audio or video recordings or photographs is not allowed in courtrooms.
  • Other than guide dogs, pets are not allowed in courtrooms.
  • Do not bring unnecessary items or items that could be used as a potential weapon to court as they will be liable to confiscation.
  • Children under 14 are not normally allowed in a courtroom unless they are giving evidence, or have the court’s prior approval to attend for educational purposes.
  • You are expected to stand up when the judge comes into or leaves court. You will know this is happening when the macer announces ‘court’
  • And please don’t forget to switch your mobile phone off.
I also note with interest that the site includes photographs of almost all of the Senators of the College of Justice and Sheriffs Principal, a practice which was historically avoided in the context of an unsettled Northern Ireland. For robe-enthusiasts, it is also a pleasing opportunity to admire the Scottish Court's distinct styles of civil and criminal robes, the former being dominantly burgundy-hued while the latter are white with striking red crosses. And don't let's forget the solemn frivolity of their Lordships' (and smattering of Ladyships') little working wigs. Helpfully, the site includes a wee FAQ for the wigly curious, justifying the winter head-warmers thus:

In the early 17th century, wigs were simply part of the fashion of the day for society. Although they had gone out of fashion by the 18th century, judges, the military, the clergy and some other professionals continued to wear smaller, more formal wigs into the 19th century, and they have been retained as part of court dress to the present day. Today, wigs are worn as a symbol of office by the legal professions. The traditional, long full-bottomed wig is now only worn by judges on ceremonial occasions such as during the procession to mark the start of the legal year (called the “kirking of the court”). A shorter, more practical style is worn in court. However, not all judges wear wigs. They are not worn in Justice of the Peace courts, tribunals, or in some proceedings involving children. The wigs are made from horsehair from the tail or mane, which in the past made wigs more practical as it could have the same off-white colour as a powdered wig without the need for powder.

Extremely positively to my mind, the site will also make a concerted effort to publicise materials which previously are likely to have been overlooked or difficult to source, including speeches delivered by judges and their sentencing statements. Moreover, surprisingly cannily, most of these materials are made available via RSS feeds, much to the assistance of your average, occasional Scots blawger. No doubt in part, this joint effort is owed to the pyramidal structure of responsibility which Holyrood's Judiciary and Courts (Scotland) Act of 2008 imposed on the once more-disparate, less formally connected Scottish judicial structures. I admire the spirit behind the judiciary's efforts and they appear to have worked up a site that seems capable appealing to the law's many publics, professional and interested and otherwise. In part, it is also a welcome recognition that Scotland's civic institutions can and ought to move into the imagined national cyberspace and forge connections there.

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