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Judicial Appointments Board for Scotland - good practice in planning and assessment for a chair - 2017

Key learning outcomes

  • Changing approach when appointment rounds fail
  • Creating compelling and tailored role descriptions and person specifications
  • Designing application and assessment methods for unusual roles
  • Using simulations with good levels of validity


The Judicial Appointments Board for Scotland (JABS) is the public body responsible for making recommendations for appointments to all the main judicial offices within Scotland, such as tribunal presidents, sheriffs and judges. As such, it is one of a relatively small number of bodies whose members have some executive functions alongside the more usual corporate governance ones.

In 2015 and 2016, two rounds of applications and assessments failed to identify a suitable candidate for the board’s new chair. The reasons were perhaps not surprising: unlike many other public body chair positions, the time commitment is variable and can be particularly demanding over short periods during recruitment processes for the judiciary.

Ahead of a third attempt to find a new chair in July 2016, a fresh approach was required.


All stakeholders agreed that simply refining previous approaches to appoint a new JABS chair was unlikely to deliver the required outcome.  

It was agreed that the panel membership should be revised to generate new thinking and a refreshed approach. The selection process is complicated by the fact that the panel cannot be chaired by a senior civil servant – even if they might be more experienced in such matters. This stipulation is laid down in the board’s founding legislation and underlines the separation between the Scottish Ministers, the Scottish Parliament and the Judiciary. 

An independent person was identified to chair the new selection panel, along with the Director of Justice, an existing JABS member and a Public Appointments Advisor (PAA) – allocated by the Ethical Standards Commissioner to provide oversight, guidance and support at every stage. 

The new panel benefited from the views of the previous panel members on the approaches they had used on the two failed rounds and why these hadn’t generated a successful outcome. 

As a first step in the process, the new panel reviewed the specific responsibilities of the chair’s role, as reflected in JABS legislation, and considered the lessons learned from the previous two rounds. Four key decisions were made:

  1. To fundamentally change and reduce the criteria for selection, and make them more bespoke to the role:
    • The ability to credibly represent a board at a senior level
    • The ability to chair a diverse group to reach decisions and make balanced judgements
    • The ability to lead a board or organisation in developing and delivering its strategic direction
    • The ability to conduct people assessments at senior level
      The panel used the Scottish Government’s core skills framework to identify indicators for the first three criteria. The panel had to design bespoke indicators for the fourth criterion.
  2. To make the role description contained in adverts and in the application pack more attractive and compelling
  3. To change the approach to assessment – with a simpler initial application approach and a more in-depth interview and assessment process to follow
  4. To directly target a more appropriate pool of potential candidates

The panel also considered how to describe the complex and possibly onerous time commitment, which it believed had discouraged candidates in the past. Clear examples and sample diary requirements were provided in the application pack, and the remuneration was changed from a set annual amount for 50 days work to a daily rate for an ‘expected’ 50 days’ work.


The selection panel asked applicants to submit an overarching statement of no more than 1,500 words with examples of how they believed they met the person specification. Applications were anonymised. There were 24 applicants for the role of Chair of the Judicial Appointments Board for Scotland – double that of previous rounds. 

The interviews, inclusive of assessment exercises, were timed at up to 90 minutes each and were structured as follows:

  1. Each candidate arrived 40 minutes early to complete two pre-interview tasks:
    • Assess the merits of two applicants for appointment to the role of sheriff and prepare five minutes’ feedback to the selection panel
    • Consider an ethical dilemma and be expected to comment on it during  interview
  2. Candidates were also asked to provide a pre-prepared response of up to seven minutes on the question: “What do you see are the two to three key challenges facing JABS over the next four years, and what would you personally bring, as Chair, in leading the organisation through them?”
  3. The panel considered the results of the assessment exercise and conducted a structured competency-based interview that included questions on diversity when making senior appointments. The panel also conducted structured questioning on the remaining criteria. 
  4. Finally, the panel considered candidate responses to the ‘ethical dilemma’ question. The results were linked to the panel’s consideration of the fit and proper person test that forms part of every appointment round.


The panel agreed that, in combination, these assessment methods had high levels of content, face and predictive validity. The significantly shortened and simplified skill set produced a good range of quality candidates for this significant role – the interviewees were all of a high standard and no less ‘rounded’ from having been tested on fewer criteria. The practical exercises provided realistic insight into how the candidates would address challenges in the real-world role. 

The panel believed that the enhanced processes used for planning and design of this process, the use of the adapted competency framework and the arrangements for assessment all contributed to a successful outcome. 

In April 2017, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Michael Matheson, announced the appointment of Nicola Gordon as Lay Chairing Member to the Judicial Appointments Board for Scotland.

More information

More detailed information on any of the materials referred to in this report is available from Ian Bruce, Public Appointments Manager, Ethical Standards Commissioner. 
Tel: 0131 347 3897 

Neil Rennick, Director of Justice, is also happy to discuss the round with any panel chair who would like to find out more about how the round was planned and how the assessment activity worked in practice
Tel: 0131 244 3537