First published by The Herald on 30 November 2016
THERE is a new man in charge of the Scottish bar and he is starting to make his presence felt.
Gordon Jackson QC, who replaced current Lord Advocate James Wolffe QC as Dean of the Faculty of Advocates in June, plans to use his term in office to help open up the profession to a wider variety of backgrounds. He will also use his experience as a Labour politician to make the profession’s influence felt at the highest levels.
Already Mr Jackson, who was MSP for Glasgow Govan from 1999 until he was ousted by the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon in 2007, is speaking to the Scottish Government about ways of stopping Scottish legal matters being heard in London’s courts and he is about to embark on a project designed to shake up the Faculty’s image as an Edinburgh old boys’ club.
“We’re keen to go out to more disadvantaged areas to do a Faculty roadshow,” Mr Jackson said. “I’d like to say to people from every sector of the community, whether it is ethnic minorities or the financially disadvantaged, this place is open to you.
“My background is hardly silver spoon. I come from Saltcoats, from a very ordinary, non-silver spoon, non-professional background and I’ve never felt disadvantaged. I’m happy to send the message that there is no barrier here because in reality there is no barrier.”
While he feels that the Faculty is welcoming of people from all backgrounds, Mr Jackson admitted that entering the legal profession is much harder now than in his day due to the financial constraints faced by all students.
As such the Faculty is looking at putting in place a bursary scheme that will see it “support people from certain backgrounds to come to the bar”, although Mr Jackson conceded that such a move could only go so far in improving diversity within the profession.
“I’m very open to that but it’s not the answer because all we’ll ever help is one person at a time,” he said.
Though you may not think it to look at him, Mr Jackson himself is doing his bit to improve the diversity statistics of a profession that, when he joined it in the late 1970s, had just four female members and even today has only ever competitively elected one woman to one of its top positions – current Vice-Dean Angela Grahame QC (Lady Valerie Stacey, who served as the first female Vice-Dean from 2004 to 2007, was elected unopposed).
As a criminal defence advocate Mr Jackson is in a minority group at the Faculty, whose membership is 75 per cent commercially focused, while the fact he does not hail from the Edinburgh elite makes him an anomaly too.
“To have someone from a criminal practice background and West of Scotland background is a big change in the Faculty and I like to think it’s not just to do with me but shows the Faculty moving and becoming more open and broadening its base,” he said.
“It is symbolic of us not being stuck in the past. The Faculty has traditionally been a very conservative Edinburgh-based organisation – and I’m not trying to be divisive here – but like everything else there’s a time when all organisations are ready for a change of leadership and way of thinking.
“This organisation had reached that point in time when it was ready to do that, although there’s a danger in over-exaggerating the difference – at the end of the day I’m a member of the Faculty and I’m a lawyer.”
Not only that, he is a former politician too, something he hopes will help him in his quest to raise the profile of the Faculty.
“I’m keen to get out and engage with government,” he said, admitting that the fact he and Justice Minister Michael Matheson both became MSPs when the Scottish Parliament launched in 1999 gives him “some advantage” in this respect.
“In the past the Faculty didn’t really engage much with the outside world, but we’re trying to engage with public bodies more and more and I’ve been having meetings with all the royal colleges in Scotland,” he said.
“The Faculty of Advocates has been a major part of Scottish life and we still have an input in legislation and attend government committees, but I think generally there’s a lack of public awareness of who we are.”
With Mr Jackson making his views known on everything from how Scottish independence could help keep more legal work north of the Border to the existence of the Supreme Court, public awareness may not be lacking for long.