Scottish justice on trial - and under debate

THE Scottish justice system has been firmly placed in the dock following the decision to give the Lockerbie bomber a second appeal, according to panelists at a top legal debate.

In June, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) granted Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi leave to appeal again his conviction for blowing up Pan Am flight 103 above Lockerbie in 1988.

The SCCRC identified six grounds on which it believed that "a miscarriage of justice may have occurred", sparking calls for a full inquiry into how the case was conducted, placing the Scottish justice system itself under scrutiny.

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The Lockerbie case was one of the topics discussed at the fast-paced Balvenie Live Legal Debate, which was held at The Scotsman offices in Edinburgh on Wednesday. The event - along with the forthcoming debate at the Lighthouse in Glasgow on Wednesday - launched the 2008 Cuthbert Scottish Legal Awards, which are sponsored by Bank of Scotland Corporate.

"If this trial had taken place in the Middle East and was referred for a second appeal then we would have people sitting about saying this wouldn't have happened in Scotland," said Samara Shah, in-house counsel to group treasury for Standard Life and a regular columnist in The Scotsman. "So our justice system is definitely on trial."

Margo MacDonald, independent list MSP for the Lothians and chairman of the Scottish Legal Awards judging panel, said: "This is a particular issue not a legal issue." She added that she had "heard it wasn't a bomb" that had brought down the plane but would not give more details.

Joyce Cullen, chairman of Brodies, defended the robustness of the system. She said: "Those representing al-Megrahi put forward more than 40 grounds for appeal - including some very serious allegations - but the SCCRC rejected most of them. It's encouraging that we have a system that allows for a second appeal."

The debate - which was chaired by Bill Jamieson, the executive editor of The Scotsman - covered a wide range of topics, including the success or otherwise of the "right to roam" legislation.

John Campbell QC, an advocate noted for his work on land law, explained that the Land Reform Act contained three main parts: the sections covering communities' and crofters' rights-to-buy, which were widely seen as successful; and the section on open access. Campbell and MacDonald agreed that some parts of the act suffered from poor drafting.

Speaking from the floor, Dave Morris, the director of the Ramblers Association in Scotland, said that Scotland was seen to have some of the most enlightened land reform laws in Europe.

"The laws success was seen at the weekend with the mountain bike world championships being held in Fort William," he said. Morris posed the question: "Was the vagueness in the wording of the act deliberate?"

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Following consumer group Which?'s super-complaint about competition in the Scottish legal profession - and the subsequent recommendations from the Office to Fair Trading - the panelists also debated the need for alternative business structures.

Shah pointed out that the debate was nothing new and highlighted a Law Society of Scotland report from June, 1968, which suggested that a lawyer - as "a man of business" - could work with those from other established professions. Shah added: "The times they are changing. The legal system cannot stay the same for ever."

Neil Stevenson, the deputy director of education and training and head of diversity of the Law Society of Scotland, said: "It's ironic that although the Clementi reforms have become known as 'Tesco Law', the supermarket is hasn't really expressed an interest in supplying legal services - but the Co-op and the AA have. No change is not an option. Scottish firms will face competition both nationally and internationally."

An open discussion with participation from the audience indicated that the regulation of any new suppliers of legal services should be carefully considered.

Stevenson also responded to questions over the adequacy of legal training. He pointed to the Law Society of Scotland's consultation on legal education, which had been wide-ranging and had included groups such as the Scottish Refugee Council and the Scottish Consumer Council.

Commenting on the present state of legal training, he added: "It's encouraging to hear stories such as Harvard's law school using a model from Glasgow law school."

Richard Pugh, past president of the Scottish Young Lawyers Association, speaking from the audience, asked about the number of law graduates who could no find a place on a diploma in legal practice course.

Shah responded by saying more could be done to inform school students about the other career options open to them if they studied law at university.

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Those attending the Edinburgh debate were able to collect nomination packs for the 2008 Scottish Legal Awards, as well as sampling The Balvenie's malt. Details on how to enter the awards - the closing date for which is Wednesday 28 November - can obtained by calling KDMedia on 0131-624 9840. The awards will be presented in February.

Details of each of the categories will be featured on the Law & Legal Affairs pages over the coming weeks, along with tips on how to put together your entries.

• The second Balvenie Live Legal Debate will take place this Wednesday at 6:30pm in the Lighthouse in Glasgow. To book a space at the debate, call KDMedia on 0131-624 9840 or e-mail [email protected]

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