Scots law for most vulnerable hides behind closed doors

LSA website

Screen grab of LSA website. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.

A major annual “conference” is taking place in Glasgow, UK, next month, covering how UK and Scots law affect the disadvantaged in Scotland.

Legal Services Agency’s (LSA) 26th annual conference, “Protecting Fundamental Rights in Scotland”1 will cover human rights, campaigning, housing, mental health and human trafficking – all areas of considerable concern to government and campaigners and affecting some of the most vulnerable in society.

But despite the importance of these subjects, reporters are not allowed to attend.

The LSA, promoting, the event states:

This year’s annual conference aims to discuss what is next for protecting fundamental rights in Scotland and what effects this may have on social welfare law, and some of society’s most vulnerable people, in Scotland.

“The day is intended to give an opportunity, through plenary sessions and workshops, to look at most, if not all, of the areas of concern to those in disadvantage in Scotland.”

Who is the conference for? The summary explains:

“This conference is for everybody who is interested in tackling the unmet legal needs of those in disadvantage in general and in particular the areas of law covered by LSA and partner organisations. If you are interested in mental health and incapacity law, housing, asylum and humanitarian protection and human rights, this is the event for you. The conference is aimed at updating everybody’s technical knowledge, promoting discussion and in particular working out the issues for the future and how they should be tackled. The conference will be of key interest to solicitors, advocates, advice workers, WROs, policy makers and community activists.”

Speakers include Lord Wallace of Tankerness, leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords and a former deputy First Minister of Scotland. He will be speaking on “the forthcoming proposals in the UK Parliament”. Other speakers include LSA solicitors, Glasgow University lecturers, Glasgow City Council housing staff, housing association staff, homelessness campaigners, and a director of Amnesty International.

A member of the House of Lords is paid by the taxpayer. Council officials are paid by the taxpayer. Most cases involving society’s most vulnerable don’t pay except through legal aid – again, covered entirely by the taxpayer. Under both Tomorrow’s principles of championing accountability and openness, what happens on the public purse matters.

I asked to report on the “conference” via a private Twitter exchange. I was told:

Hi Tristan, Just had a meeting with CEO. Unfortunately he has said we don’t really do spaces specifically for reporters. We work on Chatham House rules (sic) and value the ability for our speakers to be able to speak freely at our events. Really sorry about that, it is of course open for you to just come in your personal capacity!”

Chatham House rule,2 created in 1927, states:

When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”

Now, the identities of speakers are already public on the website. They are individuals in positions of privilege and power and they are sometimes the last hope the most vulnerable in society have of achieving justice, protection from the state or private parties, or help when they most need it. These are issues of profound public interest affecting thousands of people in Scotland and beyond. Scots law and wider UK law is changing and debate about how new rules are implemented is crucial to understanding the actions and choices of politicians who enact them.

Without an understanding of the law by the general public, they are in positions of even more vulnerability because they are at the mercy of professionals who hold all the cards of distinct language, procedure, privilege, etc. Those professionals may be acting in the best interests of clients, but the clients will still have to place trust in those professionals because they have no background from which to ask questions or raise concerns. The role of the press is to provide information, however superficial sometimes, of what might affect any individual in the community. That includes, especially, the law.

Solicitor friends have argued these events must be closed to reporting because lawyers may discuss individual cases to help learn best practices, etc. A professional reporter could not quote a half-detailed legal case anyway – quite apart from possible legal issues if vulnerable individuals are involved, a good reporter doesn’t relay half a story when they can’t confirm facts such as a person’s identity, when the case took place, the outcome, etc. This is, in fact, one of the main reasons immigration cases don’t get reported in the UK, because their outcomes are sent in private to clients, not read out in open court. Any attending reporter is left with half a story, so they wouldn’t bother.

The issue is whether solicitors would speak “frankly” about cases or the law if they knew a reporter was attending. That would generally be the case with any situation – it is why reporters attend government hearings, courts, war zones and anything in between.

Do reporters get to go anywhere and everywhere? No. One form of journalism, usually self-declared “guerrilla journalism” involves frequently undercover and aggressive projects on subjects considered to be hidden. Other outlets talk of “adversarial journalism”.

In the case of the immigration courts and tribunals, almost universally ignored by the press, I take an approach of reporting and pushing for greater openness. That doesn’t require hidden cameras or being confrontational, in my view.

In the case of this “conference”, I asked to attend. Reporters generally do not and should not pay to attend events, whereby money goes to the organising body. We should remain as distinct observers. So attending and paying in a “personal capacity” but not allowed to report is pointless and absurd. It ensures the law remains in the hands of those with power, in this case power affecting for good or ill, those “most vulnerable people”.

The LSA is entitled to refuse access to a reporter, as they are to refer to this event as a “conference”. But “private meeting” might be more accurate.

UPDATE (Nov 23, 2015): Through the conference website, I formally applied to attend, as did another reporter. We identified ourselves as reporters. The response was an offer of a place, an invoice of £85 and the statement: “Can I particularly draw attention to our standard condition including application of the ‘Chatham House Rule’.” I rejected this place for the same reasons outlined above.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.
  1. LSA website conference page. And screen grab of the page here.
  2. Explanation from Chatham House.

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