Janette WilsonHow would you describe your personal beliefs and identity in relation to religion?

I suppose, if we’re being very legalistic about it, I’m a Presbyterian. I’m a member of a congregation of the Church of Scotland here in Edinburgh. I grew up in the Church, Sunday School, Girls’ Brigade and so on in a congregation in Inverness. I became a member there, drifted a bit during university years and then returned to it as I can think people do, and I became an elder of the church some years ago. What made me stick? I wonder if that’s my personality, I don’t know. I think I probably felt very comfortable with the Church of Scotland. I didn’t really see that there was any reason to go anywhere else. In fact, the congregation I’m with at the moment is in some ways quite different from the congregation I grew up in. There is a breadth of tradition within the Church of Scotland. I don’t think there was a huge theological difference but the practices and ritual carried out were a bit different. I think that was sufficiently different for me perhaps. I didn’t really feel the need to explore further.

Would you say that GB/Scotland was an equal and tolerant society, especially in relation to human rights?

I think overall yes. There clearly has been an unfortunate history in parts of Scotland of Sectarianism between Catholics and Protestants. This is now very much on the wane, but I think that it has obviously in the past led to tensions and difficulties. A number of those reflecting on that situation, did appreciate that it was more a tribalism thing, which centred around football, large scale immigration and historical circumstances but inevitably it was badged as being due to religious differences. I suspect that that maybe has soured the views of some of the people from outwith either of the churches. But overall generally I would say that Scotland is now a tolerant country. There is a small number of secular people who are very anti-religion and at times although they’re quite small in number they do seem to be very vocal and you do get the feeling that, if this was to escalate that would lead to a greater degree of intolerance. But overall yes, I think yes, I think if you ask people, even if they’re not church attenders, they tend to feel that the church is a force for good rather than something which is harmful to society as a whole.

As the Church of Scotland is the national church, it is kind of the default church if you know what I mean, and unlike the situation if you were perhaps a member of one of the smaller, perhaps Evangelical where people might look slightly askance at you, I don’t think that you get that if you’re a Church of Scotland member. This is because most people, even though they don’t go to the church, if they were asked, as happened in the census, some 40% or so would identify as being Church of Scotland. Arguably our middle level has got too weak and is not really providing the necessary link throughout the year and as the General Assembly just meets once a year it’s a bit of a problem. We may become an even broader church if congregations are really just doing their own thing.

Has the Human Rights Act been a positive development for society?

That’s a tricky one isn’t it? I think when the Human Rights Act was a bill, there was some concern within the Church as to how it would interact with what was seen as being our traditional constitutional position. I’m not sure day to day that we do feel that this has in a practical sense happened, but obviously we’ve had a lot of difficult debates at times as to how freedom of religion on the one hand and the balance between that and other rights operates. Looking at some of the decisions which either involve the churches directly or indirectly, I think that at times our perspective might be that the courts have not got the balance right and they have given too little prominence to rights associated with religion and the practice of it compared to the other rights.

A substantive part of our law in the Church of Scotland has been re-written in the last decade or so because it has had to take cognisance of changes in UK law, which has been influenced of course by equalities legislation and by European Human Rights legislation. So for example, we’ve introduced new things as a result of having to enact legislation on bullying, discrimination and harassment.

We’re looking at our disciplinary procedures. I’d like to think that we’d probably have overhauled them, because there is a tradition of concepts such as natural justice in the church anyway. But I think that knowing that somebody might be looking over our shoulders it does put a spotlight on things that the Church has done, and which with hindsight should have been done differently. That was more to do with whether ministers as office holders had equivalent rights in terms of employment law rather than discrimination law. So it was UK rather than European law. Scots law, particularly criminal law, has had to examine the way in which things have been done and change an awful lot because long established practices – for example locking up people in police stations without access to lawyers for very long periods, slopping out by prisoners – have been successfully challenged. I think it all trickles down. I think this has been an influence on all institutions in Scotland, including the church.

I think that it’s difficult to argue against human rights being a positive thing. But I do sometimes feel that as well as human rights, there are also obligations and undoubtedly it’s like health and safety legislation. It’s often the cases that get reported that are about people not being able to be deported because they’ve got a cat, you know these kind of fringe cases I think devalue some of the ways in which human rights have been applied via the courts. That therefore leads to tensions and suggestions about repeal of the Human Rights Act which is very easy until politicians try and decide what it is they are going to put in a Bill of Rights and nobody of course can agree about that.

Are there any ways in which the Church of Scotland has a practical influence on human rights?

Practical influence on human rights? Well that would probably be our Church and Society council wouldn’t it? They do feel very strongly I think about some questions, and I think not only that Council but the Church as a whole has been quite driven by questions of poverty and justice in that area, and try campaign on issues such as the need for food banks and so on. We would see this more as social justice than human rights. But they are opposite sides of the same coin.

Do you think that public authorities respect human rights?

Well, there’s certainly enough legislation to try to encourage them to do that and, in Scotland in particular, councils do have a public sector duty to take all of these things into account in their decision making. I kind of feel maybe things went back a little bit because of the economic downturn. I think it is easier to do the right thing when there’s money sloshing around.

Do public authorities get the balance between freedom and protection right when it comes to intervening in the lives of citizens?

I’m trying to think of examples because the problem is I think that there are so many different factors. If you look for example in Scotland we’ve recently had all the police authorities, the individual police forces and they’ve all been brought together into one force, called Police Scotland and unfortunately that has led to a lot of other problems about IT systems not working with each other and so on. I think then these things that are minor in themselves can spill over into situations where there are fewer police on the streets and things aren’t being dealt with as well as possible. But generally speaking I think that public authorities are striving to do the right things, but, as with so many other things, life can get in the way.

When should public authorities intervene in the expression of religious beliefs?

Yes, well you believe in freedom of speech, but then it does then spill over. There is a line where it becomes an incitement to violence.
Is living in a Parliamentary democracy a positive thing? Is there is any kind of government which you would prefer?
Do they not say that democracy is the worst system, apart from all the rest? I do feel that in Scotland at times we feel we’re over-governed. Too many politicians really, but that’s just a very jaundiced view. Whereas constitutionally the Church of Scotland has this interesting kind of opt out from Parliamentary Sovereignty, which maybe is still quite, it’s still important but clearly it’s not as apparent as it was in the past. It does seem to come as a surprise to politicians from time to time that at least in theory there are areas into which Parliamentary authority cannot go. And we remind them about it from time to time.

Do your beliefs mean that you feel an obligation to vote?

Well I feel I have responsibility to vote because of what the suffragettes went through, that’s more important to me there than my Presbyterian faith but that’s a personal thing.

Is it a good or a bad thing that Parliament has the final say in making and changing law? Would you like to see judges empowered to strike down legislation?

It does happen a little bit…the judges say that well this part of a statue may say black but in order to conform to a European directive we’re going to say it’s white, and I think there’s a bit of tension over that…and obviously Parliament doesn’t like that and you can see sometimes and feel that probably behind the scenes there’s pressure being put on judges and so on. I don’t know…I think it’s a difficult question to answer because I think on the one hand it’s important that we have certainty in our law…we can look up a statue and if it says something you know that is the case. Whereas for example, all of this recent nonsense about you know holiday pay, whereas the UK statute says quite clearly what a normal week’s pay is for holidays but based on European views of that you’ve now got to add in commission and there’s all this question about employers maybe having to pay back dated and all this uncertainty. And I think that’s really difficult for people and I think that maybe it’s a question of aid. I think that I’d rather go for certainty.

Is majoritarian democracy a problem for minority groups? Are there some sections of society which face barriers to participation?

I think there are a lot of strands to that. Firstly I was a bit concerned to hear that there is a fear that the postal voting system is now within some communities leading to a situation of members of families perhaps being disenfranchised because one of the family – the pater familias – is just collecting in all of their votes and voting for them. And I think those sorts of developments are always a worry. I think it’s always very difficult too because Westminster went through the process of looking whether to retain first past the post voting or were they going to move to PR which is what we have in Scotland. Certainly I think we’ve kind of pioneered the idea of coalition government. Now it seems that things are not splitting up nicely along the lines of the two main and one subsidiary party and we’ve got all these other parties. Who knows where it’s all going to go? So, in some ways, maybe that gives people the feeling that if they go out and vote, their vote may count more than if they happened to be staying in a particular constituency where everybody knows that the vote will go in favour of one party.

Does it concern you that the House of Lords is unelected?

It is problematic, but on the other hand when you see the quality of some of the people that come through a system which on the face of it is awful, you do have in the House of Lords an effective revising chamber. I think again it’s a problem, going back to what we said about democracy, that at the moment the current system is probably dreadful but all the others seem to be worse. The prospect of another body being elected, which would probably then want to expand its role and which the Commons would then see as a threat, could be a problem too. But there have been so many proposals for reform and I think that the Church has been consulted on numerous occasions as to whether they should be a widening of religious representation or of course whether there should be religious representation at all? Is it right that there should still be just Church of England bishops, or should other denominations be given one place? I think that at one stage there was a proposal in terms of which the Church of Scotland would have got a place. But the caravan moved on again and in fact I think that apart from removing some of the hereditary peers not much has changed.

How do you feel about the presence of Church of England bishops in Westminster?

I suppose we would say this wouldn’t we, but I think I would rather the bishops should be there than that there should be no religious representation. However, I think that it does now seem in the 21st century seem extremely unbalanced that you do have all these Lords Spiritual and they’re all from the Church of England. I think they do speak on behalf of all people of faith…and I think that’s why I say I’d rather them be there.

Do public authorities try to respect the will of Parliament as expressed through legislation?

It’s difficult to come up with examples However, I think that some of the legislation which is being passed is very difficult – dangerous dogs and so on – and has been ignored and not vigorously enforced, but looking at things that are of major moment if you follow me, I’m not aware that people deliberately just ignore the law.

How do you feel about the EU and Devolved institutions?

You couldn’t look at European legislation and say that it’s all good or all bad. I think there’s a lot of work to be done in reforming the way in which the European institutions work. Probably it is overdramatised but there is no doubt that in the view of a lot of people, it costs far too much for all these politicians to roam around Europe to their various places and the whole process seems to be unduly bureaucratic and so on. And naturally you start thinking of over regulation – straight cucumbers and you can’t call them sausages. But there’s good stuff and bad stuff, and it’s the same I think with the Scottish Parliament and you can feel as we’ve said they are closer to home. They maybe idiots but they’re our idiots and we’ve elected them, and I think that from a lawyer’s point of view they’ve taken the Scots Law system which was so creaking because if you were lucky you got a Law Reform Miscellaneous Provisions Act every few years which tinkered with it but there’s been quite a radical change, particularly in property law and lots of other areas which were long overdue. Not all of it has been good but it’s an awful lot better than it was.

We fight like Hell against it when it’s been passed, and then we gold plate it when it gets here and add knobs to it. I digress but there was a lovely wee article when the trams came out because to save money they decided they would scrap the air-conditioning on the basis that it’s never that hot in Edinburgh which might be reasonable, except they didn’t change the windows and so they don’t open. Somebody wrote this article saying if he had been a pig on a tram how many different European regulations would have been breached by this….size of his crate, the temperature, how often he was given water etc. And yes, you do feel some of it goes overboard.

Do you think that Scotland is more pro-EU than England?

I would say yes. The SNP in particular has always been looking to Europe. I suspect that this might have been for political convenience. It was funny that they had to stop citing the Irish tiger as how great Scotland could be, when things didn’t go so well after 2008. I think it’s a bit romanticised all this stuff about the Auld Alliance with France and we hate the English. So I think there’s still a misty view about that. If European legislation hits people in the pocket, they don’t like it any more than they do in England.

What does your faith teach about people who exercise power? How should they be held accountable?

We do pray for people in power don’t we? That they should have wisdom and make wise decisions.

Do you think that your group is appropriately and proportionately represented in public life?

I think it varies over time, there are always a fairly significant number. I don’t think that we would expect them to be going in and lobbying for the Church of Scotland. We might perhaps approach them more easily than people without a church connection, but being Scottish they will all have their own views about life the universe and everything.

Do you think that too, now they have to have registers of interests, that some of them might be reluctant to badge themselves as Christian, because that might play against their political career?

Would you say that there is enough distance between the judiciary and politicians?

The ones I know certainly are, they wouldn’t want to kowtow to politicians.

What checks and balances should we have on the power of the government and Parliament?

The judiciary are our first bastion, if that were to go awry we are almost into the Nigeria type situation.

How does the Church of Scotland seek to challenge decisions in public life which it sees as problematic?

There are various routes. The Church and Society Council campaign on various issues. They will have links with various politicians. We do have various other committees, depending on the issue. They might respond to consultation documents or do something more direct. We have undertaken Judicial Review, but that is not a usual route. Generally we will engage with people.

Do you think that public authorities have a good understanding of the needs of Christians, and meet them appropriately?

It’s difficult to give a yes or no answer. Schools differ a lot and can be influenced by one headmaster. Religious observance has been a hot potato in Scotland – the whole issue of how that will happen, and if indeed it does happen. Undoubtedly the standing of the Christian churches is not what is was here, and it is the art of the possible.

Is it important for you personally to always act within secular law?

And I think that there would be occasions when people have not entirely gone along with immigration law, because of feelings about immigrants who are going to be removed. There have been discussions about giving sanctuary in churches, so there are some cases where people would nail their colours to the mast.

Do your beliefs require you to speak out against injustices effecting third parties?


Do you think that the Rule of Law is applied equally? Do some groups receive preferential or prejudicial treatment?

I suspect that there are more cases than we know about. I was very shocked by the story about sex abuse in Bradford came about, and it was obvious that the police had been turning a blind eye, and weren’t prepared to listen to these girls from poor background. I don’t think that Scotland is any different, there will be these pockets of injustice.

Although they introduced all of that legislation after the deaths of the cockle collectors at Morecombe it’s not been that effective.

How do you feel about the gradual increase in police powers over the past 15 years?

It is very difficult when you come up against the kind of terrorism and threats which are all too real. It is trying to get the right balance, but you will never do that in all cases.

Are there any legal rules which you find restrictive?

Petty annoyances, parking regulations and the like. But speaking generally, there isn’t much.

Janette Wilson studied law at Edinburgh University. After qualifying as a solicitor and following a period in private practice, she joined the in-house legal department of the Church of Scotland in 1979 as Depute Solicitor. She was appointed as Solicitor of the Church and Law Agent of the General Assembly in 1995. She has represented the Church on a number of ecumenical bodies including the Churches Legislation Advisory Service and served as secretary of its Scottish sister body, the Scottish Churches Committee. She retired in May 2016.


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