Scotland will establish a standalone supreme court in the event of a ‘yes’ vote for independence in September’s referendum, Holyrood’s deputy first minister said today.
Nicola Sturgeon, a former solicitor, also told a landmark conference on Scotland’s constitutional future that independence will enable the country to go head to head with London for lucrative global arbitration work.
Sturgeon was keynote speaker at a sold-out Law Society of Scotland event in Edinburgh held to debate the pros and cons of independence for Scotland’s 11,000 solicitors.
The white paper on independence, Scotland’s Future, confirms that the existing Inner House of the Court of Session and the High Court, sitting as a court of appeal, would become an independent Scotland’s supreme court.
But the Scottish Society has warned that this would need to be more than a ‘naming exercise’ – something that Sturgeon conceded when taking questions from the floor.
‘More work has to be done on the precise form of a new constitution [for Scotland], but this would be more than just having these courts named as the supreme court,’ she said.
The Scottish Arbitration Centre was established in 2011 to promote arbitration to the Scottish business community as an effective alternative to litigation, and Scotland to the world as a place to conduct international arbitration.
Sturgeon said: ‘Independence will enable us to promote the centre globally as a more economic alternative to London.’
Sturgeon stressed the critical role for an independent Scottish polity of a written constitution, which lawyers would play a ‘key role’ in drafting. She cited the example of equalities legislation, presently reserved to Westminster.
An SNP government in an independent Scotland would seek to legislate to introduce gender quotas for public company boards, for example, and also consider them for private bodies. She also foresees action on equal pay, reflecting the fact that more than 40 years on from the Equal Pay Act, the UK has one of the worst gender pay divides in Europe.
The pro-union cause was championed by secretary of state for Scotland Alistair Carmichael, a LibDem and also a former Scottish solicitor.
While arguing for Scotland to remain part of the UK, Carmichael admitted he is ‘uneasy’ about the erosion of the Scottish profession’s identity caused by the acquisition of many of the nation’s biggest firms by commercial rivals headquartered in London.
Pressed to do something about this however, Carmichael admitted he is powerless. ‘Integration is an inevitable consequence of the way business is done today,’ he told one inquisitor. ‘The future of the Scottish legal profession in terms of its distinctiveness is in the hands of the firms themselves. It’s probably a route you will have to go down whether you are comfortable with it or not.’
Carmichael argued that ‘lawyers and legal professionals in Scotland have the best of both worlds’, benefiting from record low interest rates, a stable currency, renewed growth and low inflation.
The greatest ‘threat’ to the respect in which Scottish law is held outwith the country’s borders comes from the pro-independence side, he claimed. Scotland has been first with beneficial legislation adopted later by the rest of the UK, Carmichael stressed, such as on smoking and forced marriages.
But the current SNP government is pursuing policies that are damaging the rule of law, he argued, such as: civil court reforms; creating an ‘unaccountable’ single police force for Scotland; abolishing the requirement for corroboration in criminal cases; and the disproportionate use of ‘stop and search’.
‘It is manifestly not the case that all threats to Scots law come from Westminster,’ said Carmichael. ‘It used to be said to me that the wrongful convictions of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four could not have happened in Scotland because of the requirement for corroboration. [Abolition] is reckless and should be abandoned.’
Carmichael was tackled on the impact of coalition policies on access to justice north of the border where Westminster retains reserved powers.
Carol Fox, an employment specialist at south Lanarkshire firm Fox and Partners, pointed to the near 80% slump in employment tribunal claims since the introduction of fees.
'We have had to do alot of things to get the economy back on its feet,' said Carmichael. 'That is not a reason for voting "yes" or "no" in this debate.'