Top Scottish barrister Roddy Dunlop on Twitter, pluralism and diversity

Among these ancient legal patricians are some now found guilty of cultural offenses by modern hanging judges. “They’ll come for her next,” I tell him. He replies with a wintry smile and one wonders how the phrase “come on, if you think you’re tough enough” translates in a place like this.

A few minutes later we are discussing freedom of expression and in particular Mr Dunlop’s combative presence on social media. A so-called “Twitter spade” has developed between him and John Nicholson, the notoriously prickly SNP MP. Mr Nicholson is the latest in a line of professional nationalists to take offense at Mr Dunlop’s harsh interventions.

Earlier this year he was blocked on Twitter by Joe Fitzpatrick, then chairman of the Committee on Access to Justice and Civil Justice, and has now been promoted back to government by Humza Yousaf. Mr Dunlop had expressed particular concern at Holyrood’s decision to reject amendments that would have barred men accused of rape from changing their gender during a court hearing.

“I just think it’s remarkable that he blocks me on Twitter. And that in a situation where I literally never interacted with him,” he says. “I support everyone’s right to block for abuse, but in a situation where I’ve never had an exchange with the guy in my life, I’ve found the dean of the faculty to be blocked by the man who was then To chair a committee that considers equality, human rights and civil rights issues is just bizarre.”

I suggest that a reasonable outcome would have been to make a call and agree to discuss these matters over coffee. “Well, I extended this invitation through a third party, but he didn’t answer.

“I’m always disappointed when elected politicians decide they don’t want to hear anything. Critical thinking and criticism should be welcomed and people should be willing to engage. It’s disappointing.

“I have on many occasions poked fun at the UK Government for constantly blaming lawyers for doing their job. Your childish obsession with “leftist lawyers” is driving me insane.

But his Twitter activity has also drawn the ire of some colleagues. A KC responding anonymously in the Scottish Legal News said: “There is a feeling that something like this demeans the office of Dean of the Faculty.”

Mr Dunlop disagrees and suggests the opposite is true. “I think the days of faculty sitting in an ivory tower and not dealing with the public are long gone – or at least should be. I think if we’re going to have any modern relevance to Scotland people need to know who we are and what we do. And in that way I think it was useful.”

Such views are consistent with his reputation within the legal profession as a dedicated advocate of freedom of expression, something he says is being undermined in public discourse.

“The level of harassment I’m seeing in relation to certain views is a worrying trend. The propensity to report hate crimes is a concern. The willingness of the police – and this was particularly so in England – to record things like non-criminal hate incidents is quite worrying. It’s a bit like missionary crawling when you turn advocating certain views that are almost certainly legally protected views into hate speech.

“We live in a pluralistic society and therefore have the right to hold views that are not hateful. We should not escalate views that someone else finds offensive into something that is viewed as hateful.”

We discuss the disproportionate presence of privately trained Premier League judges on the Scottish bench. Mr Dunlop is a former student at Glasgow Private High School and acknowledges the imbalance. But he is also pleased about the number of women and students in state schools who are now beginning to change the social and cultural fabric of the profession.

“It’s not good from the standpoint of simple fairness in terms of diversity and enabling career advancement,” he says. “There aren’t enough people with state degrees in the bank; There aren’t enough women on the bench. Part of it is a legacy issue. At the moment, the women in the Inner House outnumber the men named Colin. There are four Colins and three women.

“Part of that was the very slow progression of women in the profession. Women have only been admitted for 100 years, but the faculty goes back to 500.

“The same is true for government schools, but it’s changing fast. More than half of our members have a state education. We have various scholarships. And the funds now available are weighted to try to address the historic imbalance.

“I was inspired by a scholar who spoke at a bar dinner last month and described how he came from a very difficult background. In my opinion, he is at the beginning of what appears to be an outstanding legal career.”

In recent years he has been very visible at the interface between politics and law. He acted for the Scottish Government in the successful judicial review of Alex Salmond following the Inquiry into Alleged Misconduct when Mr Salmond was First Minister. He also acted for Craig Murray, who was found guilty of contempt for blog posts he wrote about Mr Salmond’s subsequent trial.

These cases, as well as the legal aspects of Holyrood’s powers to hold an independence referendum, have raised questions about the Lord Advocate’s presence in Government. In it, he describes himself as a traditionalist who believes the practice of both advising the government and being free to be prosecuted has long worked well. However, he now thinks it might be time for Scotland to switch to the English model.

“You have a prosecutor on the one hand and an attorney general on the other. I think that a general erosion of public confidence in our politicians may have extended – very unfairly – to the Lord Advocate. I know all the recent Lord Advocates professionally and personally, and they are all men and women of integrity.”

He is also dismayed by what he sees as performative antics by a cohort in his profession who have recently signaled their refusal to act for energy companies or prosecute climate protesters.

“I think it’s heretical to me about the ethos and creeds of the Scottish legal profession. We have always adhered to the taxi rank rule. There are a multitude of exceptions. If I go to a tax specialist KC and say I want him to defend a murder tomorrow, he has every right to point out that he only does taxes.

“Once we start just saying that out loud and admitting the possibility that we as attorneys can say that we don’t think something is a just cause, so I’m not going to argue for that, we lose our ability to say ‘don’t identify with ours customers’ and we’re hurting the people who really matter in this discussion, the advocates of crime.

“They act for people who can be very unpleasant jobs, but they still need representation and representation from people who don’t prejudice them. If we start walking this path, where does it end?”

He also cites the faculty’s opposition to proposed changes to the Scottish jury system, particularly to remove them in cases of rape or serious sexual assault. “One of the many objections we have is again the risk of mission creep. We don’t think it makes much sense either. How can you say you can’t trust a jury on a rape case but you can trust them on a murder case? In Scotland we attach fundamental importance to our juries and have always done so.

“It’s not something we should give up lightly. Here, too, it is about the perception of fairness and the recognition that what a jury brings to the table are different life and social experiences. So we really hope that this change doesn’t happen. But we strongly suspect that an attempt will be made.” Top Scottish barrister Roddy Dunlop on Twitter, pluralism and diversity

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