WRITERS TO THE SIGNET ATTENDED more historic events this week with the formal swearing in of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at the Court of Session on Wednesday. In the packed First Division courtroom before the Lord President, Lord Carloway, and 15 Senators of the College of Justice (the formal name of Scotland’s senior judges), Ms Sturgeon took the oath of office and signed the parchments. Lord Carloway said a few words for the occasion. He remarked that one of the functions of the court is to hold the government to account under the law but, he said, this does not mean there should not be dialogue. Writers to the Signet are members of the College of Justice and are well represented at these events by the Deputy Keeper and a retinue. Space on the bench permitting, any Writer to the Signet may attend such events and wear the gown of their office. There will be further swearing in ceremonies in the coming weeks, with the appointments of Cabinet Secretaries today and new judges, the latter including the first current Writer to the Signet to be appointed to the new bench for over 300 years, Andrew Stewart QC WS.
PROPERTY LAWYERS WILL BE INTERESTED to read the latest retail statistics coming out of the US. Retail stalwarts Macy’s, Nordstrom and JC Penney turned in their worst same-store sales growth in seven years, driving share prices sharply lower. One factor is undoubtedly the chronic drop in customer traffic to shopping centres and the loss of market share to online groups such as Amazon. America’s department stores are anchor tenants in two thirds of the countries shopping malls. Retail experts believe many US department stores keep these branches open owing to the expense of renegotiating leases. But there is another reason: stores find when they close a location, there is a corresponding drop in their online business in the area. Even Amazon is experimenting with physical stores in college campuses and urban centres. As ever, the behaviour of customers can confound the experts: the belief in the out of town behemoth as the future of supermarkets has fallen away with the popularity of smaller “local” stores in residential areas. The behaviour of experts can also confound the layman: incredible to think that private equity investors once shunned property and retail as too risky. What was that about?
TALKING OF RETAIL, THE BHS PLOT THICKENS. Lawyers and other professional advisers have been called to give evidence to the House of Commons joint select committees inquiry into the sale and subsequent insolvency of the sometime high street giant. They will be hoping for better reviews in the press than Pensions Regulator CEO Lesley Titcomb, who was condemned in the Times this week as “utterly unconvincing” by business journalist Ian King. (This is, after all, the organisation that teamed up with the Department of Work and Pensions to spend £8m of public money on a patronising “fun” monster “Workie” as a “striking physical embodiment of the workplace pension”. Just what the country needed.) It is not hard to imagine that MPs will be taking a close interest in the fees charged by professional advisers during the sale of BHS to the thrice bankrupt Dominic Chappell. The Daily Mail are already styling law firm Olswang and accountants Grant Thornton as “Fat Cats who got £6 million”.
GOLF HAS A REPUTATION for conservatism, tradition and, well, the elevation of etiquette to the level of phobic disorder. Golf is exceptional in that it comes with its own ideology, its own view of how the world should be and how people should behave. Golf courses themselves are a sort of idealised fantasy of the natural environment. This normative urge to prescribe how the world ought to be, rather than acceptance of how it is, feeds through to a social pathology around golf which is very particular. Golf clubs, after all, are social constructs as well as sporting facilities. This is often evidenced in attitudes about what kind of person should play the game, or at least play the game at your particular club. If the landscape can be idealised, so too can the social composition of a golf club and how people dress and behave. And so to Muirfield, the epitome of all that is good and, shall we say, less good about golf and its social pathology. Muirfield is in the news with the membership failing to achieve the necessary majority to allow the admission of women on the same terms as men. What’s embarrassed the club is the willingness of a hard core minority of members to express, as a badge of honour, their resolute, trenchant indifference to opinion from outside the club. They do not care how it looks. They simply wish to withhold equal status from women and exclude them from a true sense of acceptance and belonging. Institutions lose touch with the zeitgeist at their peril and endanger their future. Institutions are vulnerable to small minorities determined, and convinced of their entitlement, to stand in the way of progress and enlightenment. The Muirfield decision has been universally condemned. The club’s committee, who recommended reform, are disappointed but helpless. The R&A have acted quickly: “Going forward, we will not stage the Championship at a venue that does not admit women as members”. The First Minister couldn't have been clearer: "This is simply indefensible". The “voice of golf”, Peter Alliss, aged 85, thinks differently: “The clubhouse is full of bloody women. They love going there for nothing”.
FOOTBALL CLUBS ARE NO STRANGERS to financial controversy, and the end of the 2015/16 season this week saw the owner of Aston Villa, Randy Lerner, lose $400 million, according to the estimation of Forbes magazine, in his sale of the unhappy – and now relegated – club. Villa’s new owner is Chinese businessman Dr Tony Xia. The long suffering fans seem suspicious of the hyperbole surrounding their new owner. Such deals are familiar material to renowned international sports lawyer Paolo Lombardi, who appeared in conversation with top Scottish sports lawyer Bruce Caldow at the Signet Library on Thursday. The fascinating discussion included Paolo’s experience as Head of Disciplinary and Governance at FIFA and international football regulation.
THE FOOTBALL THEME CONTINUED yesterday evening with the first appearance in Scotland of an event by The Blizzard, a quarterly football magazine from a cooperative of top class football journalists. A sell out audience of 200 heard magazine editor Jonathan Wilson, regular contributor Philipe Auclair, the Scotsman’s Alan Pattullo and the Guardian’s Kevin McCarra talk all things football, Scotland and beyond. WS Society CEO Robert Pirrie introduced the event as the first of the WS Society’s new cultural programme, explaining the importance of football within the WS Society, both now and long ago. Underlying that point, the promotional materials for the event featured drawings created over 100 years ago by a Writer to the Signet, William Cumming, depicting a game of football between the staff of two Edinburgh law firms. Cumming was to live through two World Wars and continued in legal practice into his 80s until his death in 1962.
Writer's Week is not intended to represent the views of the WS Society or its members.