Lawyer of the Month: John Scott QC

Lawyer of the Month: John Scott QC

John Scott QC

For someone who decided to become a lawyer partly because it’s what his parents wanted him to do, John Scott QC has carved out a long and illustrious career in the profession. He has been involved in some of Scotland’s most high-profile inquiries and cases since starting out as a trainee solicitor in 1985 with Hughes Dowdall and Company in Glasgow. He has represented survivor group Incas in the ongoing Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry, led the independent review on policing of the miners’ strike and is now working on the inquiry into the death of Sheku Bayoh in police custody in Fife in 2015.

Mr Scott says: “I think my parents had a discussion and decided what me and my three brothers were going to do and I was to be the lawyer. I also inherited my dad’s interest in reading about real-life crime. I did what they wanted and applied for law at Glasgow University.”

That was in the early 1980s and Mr Scott explains that the variety of law means it’s relatively easy to find something that is of particular interest - for him it was the court side of things. After his “rounded traineeship” in the west of Scotland he moved to Edinburgh in 1988 for a role that was purely court work and he has remained in the capital since.

“Being a court lawyer means you meet the widest conceivable range of people and they are obviously only coming to you because something has gone wrong in their life,” explains Mr Scott. Over the years he says he has worked with career criminals, doctors, members of the aristocracy and individuals with disabilities or mental health issues. “It’s challenging,” he adds. “But the fact you’re on your feet giving voice to people – many of whom can’t really speak for themselves – is rewarding. For me, the court side is what law is about.”

Mr Scott admits that his work can be harrowing. This includes his role as senior counsel to care abuse survivors in the long-running Scottish inquiry. INCAS have been recognised as core participants and have therefore been involved throughout the inquiry. “It’s interesting to see a trauma informed inquiry where all the key people including Lady Smith and the inquiry team, have had trauma informed training, “ says Mr Scott. “Listening to some of the stories that adults have been telling about their lives as children is incredibly moving. It’s very difficult to hear, especially where you are there to make sure they are supported and represented. Trauma informed practice is something that is coming in more generally in criminal defence and court work.”

He adds that one of the challenges of such inquiry work is that apart from opening and closing statements all, or almost all, the questions will be asked by counsel to the inquiry. He says: “Counsel to the inquiry have been very good and incorporated my questions into their examination. But it’s quite a strange experience when you are used to standing up and speaking directly. It also places greater evidence on opening and closing statements, on following the evidence carefully, on making submissions that might help Lady Smith with her findings, and making sure that all the questions are asked.”

Another inquiry of significance to Mr Scott is the review he chaired on the impact of policing on Scottish communities affected during the miners’ strike in the mid 1980s when about 500 people were arrested. In October 2021, the Miners Strike (Pardons) (Scotland) Bill was finally published following recommendations from the review. Under the plans, those convicted of breach of the peace, breach of bail conditions or obstructing police would be pardoned.

“During the review we heard some very dramatic testimony from miners who had been arrested, prosecuted, lost their jobs and lost their pensions. Some had never been in trouble before or subsequently. There was financial loss, there were suicides and families broke up. For a lot them it was also the loss of their good name for the sake of fighting not just themselves, and not just for money, but for the sake of the whole industry and for whole communities,” explains Mr Scott. “I was really pleased when the government accepted our recommendation that they should be pardoned.”

He adds: “We listened to some powerful testimony. We wanted to hear from people affected, some of whom wouldn’t have travelled to Edinburgh or Glasgow to see us. We went out into mining communities across the country. We were assisted by the NUM to arrange venues and times, often in the evening. We went to miners’ welfare clubs, a pub and town hall to hear directly from miners or their families. And it was a privilege to work alongside Kate Thomson, Dennis Canavan and Jim Murdoch.”

Another high-profile piece of work by Mr Scott is his role in leading the formation in spring 2020 of an independent group to provide additional oversight of the use of temporary police powers during the coronavirus pandemic. He says: “The Chief Constable phoned me just after lockdown started and asked if I would chair an independent advisory group. He took the view that Police Scotland had been given extraordinary powers you would only ever really see in war time. He thought there was a need for additional human rights focused scrutiny. We would report to the Scottish Police Authority. It would allow additional assurance to be offered to the public that powers were being used in way that was compatible with human rights and proportionate.”

Mr Scott says there was a lot of community representation on the independent group that included, among others, Aamer Anwar, solicitor and human rights campaigner and Tressa Burke of the Glasgow Disability Alliance. He believes that, overall, Police Scotland dealt with lockdown, the speed of change when it came to the law and such things as Black Lives Matter protests that also took place during the pandemic in a proportionate manner, taking human rights into account.

“I’ve been quite lucky that the work I’ve done for almost 30 years in human rights in the voluntary sector has put me in the position where I’ve been asked to do these reviews,” he says. “It’s got to the stage where more of my time is spent on public inquiry and the review work than being a criminal defence lawyer.”

Over the decades, he has seen changes in the legal landscape and he is concerned now about the lack of younger people becoming criminal defence lawyers. “One of the things that has always annoyed me is that people don’t give enough credit to the very good lawyers there are on the criminal side. To do the job properly you need to be a good lawyer. But the side of the courts that deals with money appears to be valued more highly by many people than the criminal court side. I don’t think there is anything more important than what we do in the criminal courts,” says Mr Scott. “I’m struck by the fact that a lot of people on the criminal defence side have been around for a long time. There are some very impressive young people coming through, but there are fewer opportunities. I am worried about the future of criminal defence lawyers generally.”

He spends time speaking to young lawyers and going out to universities and is concerned about obstacles in the way, such as money and more people starting out who decide to join the Crown Office or Scottish Government legal directorate for greater security. He adds: “I’m concerned that at a point where there has been a lot of effort and money put into the recovery strategy for addressing the backlog in the courts that insufficient attention has been paid to the defence side. The Crown has been given more resources and they have taken on more prosecutors. I think there are now more Advocate Deputes, for example, than there has ever been.”

In some parts of the country, he highlights the issue of it being difficult to find a lawyer, particularly to do Legal Aid work. And he’s worried this situation is getting worse. “Our side of the profession doesn’t really look sustainable in the long term,” he warns.

In terms of what the future holds for him personally, Mr Scott says that things always tend to turn up. He refers back to the Lockerbie case when he was asked by Tony Kelly, now a sheriff in Glasgow, to be a junior member of the legal team that was being put together. They had met as a result of Mr Scott’s role as convener of the Howard League for Penal Reform in Scotland. Being part of the Lockerbie inquiry gave him two years away from his mainstream work to focus on the Abdelbaset al-Megrahi appeal. Mr Scott says: “I was working with people like Maggie Scott who is now Lady Scott, Martin Richardson, who is now Lord Richardson, and Shelagh McCall QC. It was a privilege to be able to work with that team.”

Mr Scott certainly won’t have time on his hands in the coming months, for example he has the Sheku Bayoh inquiry beginning in May, as well as his criminal defence work. But he keeps to about one trial a month to do things properly and to have time for the other things in his life.

He concludes: “Things for me at the moment are great. My kids are both quite young and I’m heavily involved in being an active dad. Some core practitioners are doing back-to-back trials and it’s quite a punishing schedule. I have a nice balance at the moment.”

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