Gibraltar's ruling elite puts top judge in the dock

Chief justice claims dossier of charges against him is malicious, as tribunal meets to hear complaints stretching back a decade

The tiny community of Gibraltar is embroiled in a bitter dispute between its chief judge and the powerful establishment figures that run the British territory. At the heart of the row is the reluctance of the territory's chief justice to go along with legal reforms drawn up by the Gibraltar government.

Now Chief Justice Derek Schofield, who has been suspended from his post, faces removal from office after his critics produced a 157-page dossier of complaints, some more than 10 years old. Judge Schofield's supporters claim the case against him is either "demonstrably false" or "malicious".

Tomorrow, Gibraltar's chief minister, Peter Caruana, will confront him at a disciplinary tribunal specially convened to hear the allegations, which include a minor motoring offence, the judge's reluctance to greet the chief minister officially during Christmas visits to the Gibraltar courtrooms and complaints that the judge's wife was too outspoken.

By vigorously defending his judicial independence and challenging the controversial Judicial Services Act, a wide-ranging reform of the judiciary, Judge Schofield is understood to have made enemies among the ruling elite.

The case, which is estimated to cost up to £3m, is being played out amid the splendours of a converted ballroom on Gibraltar's famous Mount, where QCs from London have been flown in to take part in the proceedings. One of the world's leading law firms, Clifford Chance, is acting as solicitor to the tribunal headed by Lord Cullen.

The tribunal has heard a series of claims and counterclaims about the chief justice, including complaints about his objections to Christmas visits by the chief minister to courtroom staff, which he said were inappropriate. According to a former attorney general, Katherine Dawson, the visits were traditional and good for staff morale. Ms Dawson, who said she was accused by Judge Schofield of being an MI6 spy, spoke of a tense atmosphere among court staff, who were "intimidated" by the chief justice's strong views on the issue.

The deputy registrar, Clive Mendez, told the hearing last week that he held Judge Schofield in high personal regard, but that his position as Gibraltar's top judge had become "untenable". Although the chief justice was hard-working, controversy surrounding his post made it difficult for him to stay on, Mr Mendez said. He emphasised the chief justice had "always treated staff properly". Other tribunal allegations relate to allegedly "extreme" statements made by Mrs Schofield, a lawyer, about the Judicial Services Act and the principle of judicial independence. Critics said the judge should have at least dissociated himself from her remarks. The judge's critics claim he was concerned about the impact of the Act on his own employment. The chief justice abused his position by challenging the Act, they insist.

Antony White, QC, representing the law firms whose complaint to the governor sparked the process leading to the tribunal, claimed the chief justice regularly became "embroiled" in public controversy. He said the judge had occasionally provided material to the press which fuelled public disagreement, instead of stepping back to let the row ease off, as his position required. Mr White said both the chief justice and his wife had "personalised" their objection to the Judicial Services Act by describing it as a legal attempt to drive the judge from office.

James Eadie, QC, for the Gibraltar government, denied the claim the law undermined the judiciary. "Neither the chief minister nor anyone else in the government has ever sought to remove or to hound out the chief justice," he said. The chief justice had failed to demonstrate the "care, restraint and responsibility" that his post demanded, he told the tribunal.

Comments