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WOLFFE HALL: Papers reveal Council’s legal action ‘abandoned’, £320K Faculty refurbishment of Laigh Hall & new Lord Advocate refused to give expectations on move to recover public ownership of Parliament House

09 Jun

New Lord Advocate’s role in Parliament House titles fiasco. DOCUMENTS obtained from the Scottish Government reveal Scotland’s new Lord Advocate – James Wolffe QC – refused to give expectations of any success on efforts by the City of Edinburgh Council to recover public ownership of titles to Parliament House and the Laigh Hall.

Emails from James Wolffe to the Scottish Government also claim the Faculty of Advocates spent £320K on legal costs and work refurbishing the Laigh Hall – which Edinburgh City Council contend was wrongly taken from public ownership.

The series of exchanges between the former Dean of the Faculty of Advocates and Scottish Ministers in relation to the loss of public ownership of Scotland’s top court buildings – came to light in papers released by the Scottish Government in response to a Freedom of Information request.

In one letter dated 2 April 2015 to Alex Neil MSP  – the then Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice – James Wolffe told the Minister he did not object to a meeting between representatives of the City of Edinburgh Council and the Faculty of Advocates.

However, Wolffe added to the same letter “At the same time I would not wish to give any expectation to you or the council as to the outcome of any discussion.”

The long time lawyer & QC – recently selected by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon as Scotland’s latest Lord Advocate –  also felt confident enough to pass along details of the financial costs of ‘refurbishing’ the Laigh Hall – which the City of Edinburgh Council maintained were part of the common good & therefore owned by the council.

In a separate email to a senior Scottish Government civil servant – James Wolffe added: “I am advised that the of refurbishing the Laigh Hall following the grant of title to the Faculty was £242,270 plus VAT, with professional fees of £33,537 plus VAT.”

Responding to Wolffe’s claim the Faculty of Advocates paid out over £320K on refurbishing parts of buildings formerly in public ownership – an individual at the Scottish Government whose identity has been censored in the released documents – made light of further coverage of the Parliament House fiasco in the Scottish media.

In a further email, Wolffe alerted the secretive Scottish Government contact to additional coverage, pointing to an article written by Martin Hannan in The National, titled “Edinburgh asks: Can we have Parliament House back, please?

Meanwhile, unredacted sections of legal advice given by the Scottish Government’s own lawyers to Scottish Ministers revealed in the documents state the following:

• The Scottish Court Service (SCS) is the current proprietor and occupier of Parliament House.

Consequently it is that independent body (and not the Scottish Ministers) that would have to agree to a voluntary transfer of its title to the local authority. We don’t know what view the Lord President would be likely to take on that matter and whether he would agree to the transfer in circumstances where the public body has a valid title. He may, for example, be influenced by the fact that the SCS has recently undertake a major refurbishment of the building complex at a cost of around £58 million.

• The finance position is complex. SCS holds a valid title and will have accounted for bot the property and the recent refurbishment works in its accounts: Whilst a transfer to the council would retain the property in public ownership, there are tricky issues around accounting and public finance rules t at would require further investigation.

• Although neither a legal nor financial impediment, the title position is very complex. Parliament House is not one building but rather a number that are stitched together, built down the centuries. it is not clear whether the entire property was, and remained, part of the Common Good Fund when Scottish Ministers registered a title. This may be relevant when considering whether or not it would be appropriate to transfer the entire property. My understanding is that it would be an expensive exercise to undertake any further examination of the title and it is unlikely that it would in any event achieve any greater clarity.

• The Faculty of Advocates holds a registered title to the Laigh Hall. It mayor may not agree to a voluntary transfer, and if they were inclined to do so, we don’t know upon’ what basis.

As ministers sought to arrange meetings and seek views on the subject, Lord Brian Gill – then Lord President – wrote to Alex Neil MSP, asserting “this matter is best dealt with at official level”

Gill said he would ask Eric McQueen – Chief Executive of Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service, to meet with officials of the Council.

However, after a year of fruitless negotiations between council officials, the Scottish Government, and other parties, the City of Edinburgh Council served writs on Scottish Ministers, the Keeper of the Registers and the Scottish Courts & Tribunals Service on 25 November 2015.

The action by the council – seeking declarator that the City of Edinburgh Council is the owner of Parliament House, High Street, home of the Court of Session – has since been abandoned.

In response to media enquiries, the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service confirmed the council’s legal action had ceased, and said : “SCTS holds legal title to Parliament House.”

PARLIAMENT HOUSE TITLE SWINDLE

Last year Diary of Injustice reported on the City of Edinburgh Council’s efforts to recover the titles to Parliament House after land reform campaigner Andy Wightman – now an MSP – revealed land titles to the buildings of Scotland’s top courts were ‘gifted’ by Scottish Ministers to the Faculty of Advocates.

A disclosure of eighty eight pages of documents released to DOI under Freedom of Information legislation – revealed at the time the Scottish Government had no plans to act over their handing over of the Parliament Hall land titles to the Faculty of Advocates.

And, throughout the documents – which contain communications between civil servants, briefings to Ministers, land reports and letters from Edinburgh City Council asking for meetings, it was clear Scottish Ministers favour leaving the titles to the nation’s top courts with the vested interests of the legal profession.

During an earlier check on the titles to the Laigh Hall – Parliament House – Queen Street – ownership stood in the name of “SIDNEY NEIL BRAILSFORD Queen’s Counsel, Treasurer of HONOURABLE THE FACULTY OF ADVOCATES Edinburgh, as Trustee and in Trust for said Faculty”.

Sidney Brailsford is High Court Judge Lord Brailsford.

Scottish Government files reveal how court titles were handed over to advocates After a series of briefings with Ministers – involving everyone from the Lord Advocate & Solicitor General to the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Minister for Legal Affairs and others, a position was adopted by Scottish Ministers “That we confirm to Council officials that it is the Scottish Government’s position that title to Parliament Hall was taken by Scottish Ministers in good faith and with the full knowledge and consent of the Council. The Scottish Court Service and Faculty of Advocates therefore have good title to the property and Ministers propose no further action.”

Lawyers for the Scottish Government also sought to distance themselves from the huge £58 million taxpayer funded spend on the Scottish Court buildings – long after titles were handed over to the advocates.

One lawyer stated in an email: “Was the PH [Parliament Hall] refurb about £60m? It went over in the SCS [Scottish Court Service] budgets I think but from my recollection of briefing on their budget it is not easily identifiable within their budget lines. So SCS [Scottish Court Service] spent the money not SG [Scottish Government]?”

In another memo, it is revealed Edinburgh City Council may be compelled to take legal action to recover the titles and details an example of how Common Good land disputes have affected legislation in the past.

As previously reported, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has already given her blessing to the multi million pound title handover freebie to the Faculty of Advocates. The First Minister claimed there was “no easy solution to the issue of restoring title to the City of Edinburgh Council”. The First Minister’s response to a question from Green Party MSP Alison Johnstone during First Minister’s Questions, follows:

Parliament House handed over to Faculty of Advocates FMQ’s Nicola Sturgeon 19 February 2015

Official Report of debate: Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green): It transpired this week that the 17th century old Parliament hall in Edinburgh was transferred from the collective ownership of my constituents to Scottish ministers without knowledge or recompense to the common good fund.

The City of Edinburgh Council failed in its role as steward of the fund, but is now seeking to resolve the situation. Can the First Minister assure my constituents that any requests from the council to restore ownership of that common good asset to the council will be considered seriously and favourably?

The First Minister – Nicola Sturgeon: I will briefly state the background to this issue, of which I am sure that Alison Johnstone is aware.

The Scottish Government’s position is that title to Parliament hall was taken by Scottish ministers in good faith, and that that was done with the full knowledge and consent of the council. The Scottish Courts Service and the Faculty of Advocates, therefore, have now got good title to that property.

Of course, I am more than happy to ask the relevant minister, Marco Biagi, to; meet and discuss the matter with the City of Edinburgh Council, but as far as I can see there is no fault here on the part of the Scottish Government.

Further, of course, title has since been passed on, so it may very well be that there is no easy solution to the issue of restoring title to the City of Edinburgh Council. I think that any questions on how the situation has arisen probably have to be directed to the council.

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