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WOLFFE HALL: Edinburgh Council racks up £53K legal bill in failed bid to recover ownership of Parliament House – as papers reveal Faculty of Advocates “occupied” Laigh Hall for 150 years without recorded title deeds

05 Sep

Costs mount for return of Scotland’s top court buildingsAN UNSUCCESSFUL legal action by the City of Edinburgh Council to recover public ownership of Parliament House – the sprawling, high value land estate situated in Edinburgh’s old town comprising Scotland’s top court buildings – has so-far cost taxpayers £52,991 – according to figures released to the media.

The costs of legal advice and other legal services provided to the council, revealed in a Freedom of Information disclosure, list law firm Burness Paul as the largest single expense at £38,726, followed by Counsel’s fees listed as £10,620K and ‘experts’ and other professional fees reaching a total of £2,400 after VAT.

However, the council’s legal action to recover the lost titles of Parliament House – which was to be heard in the very same court buildings it had lost ownership of – was later abandoned – reported in further detail here:  WOLFFE HALL: Papers reveal Council’s legal action ‘abandoned’, £320K Faculty refurbishment of Laigh Hall.

Documents released by the Scottish Government and published by DOI revealed the then Dean of Faculty of Advocates – James Wolffe QC (now Lord Advocate) – refused to give any expectation of success on attempts by Edinburgh Council to recover public ownership of titles to Parliament House and the Laigh Hall.

In one letter dated 2 April 2015 to former Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice  Alex Neil MSP – 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.”

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.”

The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service also disclosed their own figures incurred following legal fees in the action against the City of Edinburgh Council regarding the titles of Parliament House, Parliament Hall and the Laigh Hall. The SCTS admitted it had incurred legal costs in respect of advice from solicitors amounted to £4,388.20 and costs of £3,980 in instructing Counsel.

The full listing of Legal Fees to City of Edinburgh Council: Parliament Hall Titles: Burness Paull 38,726.40, Charges/Diligence-Other Registers search fees 108.00, Counsel’s fees 10,620.00, Courier Charge 30.90, Court Dues 213.50, Court Officer fees 479.28, Experts/Other Professional fees 2,400.00, Registers Form Reports 60.00, Registers – Copy/Extract Dues 236.40, Registers Direct search fees 21.60, Travel Expenses 94.92, Totals £52,991.00

LAIGH HALL ‘OCCUPIED’ BY FACULTY OF ADVOCATES WITH NO RECORDED TITLES:

In a separate 47 page Freedom of Information document release by Registers of Scotland (RoS)– the body charged with registering land ownership in Scotland – several documents highlight Scottish Government civil servants scrambling to protect Ministers from questions over the titles loss in the Scottish Parliament while vested legal interests are of a clear persuasion titles should be handed over to the Faculty of Advocates.

Additionally, the position of the Faculty of Advocates in relation to their ownership claim over the Laigh Hall becomes a little clearer in a chain of correspondence from the Edinburgh law firm of Shepherd and Wedderburn to RoS, which follows on from a letter from Registers of Scotland to a law firm marked “Destroy correspondence after archive”.

In a letter dated 19 January 2006, a solicitor – David A Smith of for Shepherd & Wedderburn appears to admit the Faculty of Advocates “occupied” a key part of Parliament House known as the Laigh Hall, but held no recorded title to it.

Mr Smith writes to Registers of Scotland, stating: The Disposition by The Scottish Ministers is stated to be for no consideration, and as I indicated to you In the course of our telephone conversation, the position with regard to the Laigh Hall is that the Faculty of Advocates has occupied the Laigh Hall for approximately 150 years, and the records of the Faculty indicate that although the Faculty did not have a recorded title to the Laigh Hall, the Senior Officer Bearers of the Faculty in the Nineteenth Century were of the opinion that the Faculty had “undoubted title” to the Laigh Hall.

Parliament House Is in the course of being redeveloped by The Scottish Court Service, and in the course of the redevelopment it became clear to all concerned that The Scottish Ministers did not have a registered title to the whole of Parliament House and it was agreed in the course of discussions between The Scottish Court Service and the Faculty that The Scottish Ministers would register a title to the entire building and they would then grant the Faculty a Disposition of the Laigh Hall in order to regularise the de facto position which has applied since the mid Nineteenth Century.

In the hope that this explanation will be sufficient for your purposes, I look forward to hearing from you with a receipted Form 4 and confirmation that the Registers of Scotland will now process the Faculty’s application for registration of its interest on the back of the application which was recently submitted on behalf of The Scottish Ministers in relation to the whole of Parliament House.

The solicitor at Shepherd  & Wedderburn acting for the ‘trustee’ for the Faculty of Advocates – David A Smith, was none other than David Alexander Smith – the husband of Court of Session judge Lady Anne Smith.

After his retirement from Shepherd & Wedderburn, David Smith served a term as a board member of the Scottish legal Complaints Commission (SLCC), where he sparked findings by Kevin Dunion – the then Scottish Information Commissioner – who demanded the release of censored comments by Smith targeting victims of corrupt solicitors who came before the pro-lawyer legal regulator.

PARLIAMENT HOUSE PUBLIC OWNERSHIP 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 none other than 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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