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WOLFFE’D HALL: Edinburgh Council admit defeat in Parliament House titles fiasco – officials no longer pursuing recovery of Scotland’s top court buildings to common good public ownership

15 Sep

Top court now owned by ‘public body’ run by judges. THE City of Edinburgh Council have this week confirmed no further action is being taken by the council to recover ownership to the common good of Parliament House – the seat of Scotland’s top courts.

In a statement issued to the media, a spokesperson for the City of Edinburgh Council said in relation to Parliament House: “We are not pursuing legal action regarding ownership of the Parliament House.The building, however,  remains in public ownership and is publicly accessible.”

The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS) now have full title to Parliament House – granted to them by Scottish Ministers.

However as the SCTS is a public body which is effectively controlled by a quango commanded by Scotland’s top judges – the status of “public ownership” may well fall to be a loosely applied term given how the titles came to be in the possession of the courts after Scottish Ministers took ownership of Parliament House from the common good.

The City of Edinburgh Council’s costly £53K legal action to recover the lost titles of Parliament House – which was destined to be heard in the very same court buildings – was abandoned almost as instantly as papers were served by the council’s legal agents on the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service and Scottish Ministers- reported in further detail here:  WOLFFE HALL: Papers reveal Council’s legal action ‘abandoned’, £320K Faculty refurbishment of Laigh Hall.

Commenting on the Laigh Hall – a large area of building which runs underneath Parliament House and was ‘gifted’ to the Faculty of Advocates by the Scottish Government, a Council spokesperson, said: “Shortly after Scottish Ministers registered these buildings they transferred the title for Laigh Hall to the facility of advocates. We understand that this transfer is subject to Scottish Ministers having first refusal to reaquire the property in the event of a sale.”

A spokesperson for the council also confirmed earlier moves by Edinburgh Council to ‘persuade’ the SCTS & Scottish Government to voluntarily hand back ownership, were also at an end.

DOI has previously published documents released under Freedom of Information legislation which revealed lawyers representing trustees of the Faculty of Advocates informed Registers of Scotland (RoS) that the Laigh Hall – part of the Parliament House complex – had been occupied by the Faculty for some 150 years, with no recorded titles – yet Scottish Ministers and Registers of Scotland went ahead and granted ownership to the Faculty of Advocates.

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.

Documents released by the Scottish Government and published by DOI also revealed the former Dean of the 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 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.

Records of titles to the Laigh Hall – Parliament House – Queen Street – ownership stands 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.

Scotland’s current First Minister – Nicola Sturgeon also weighed in on the debate, but only after being asked questions during a session of First Minister’s Questions.

The First Minister gave little indication the Scottish Government were willing to ensure titles were handed back to the City of Edinburgh Council : Parliament House handed over to Faculty of Advocates FMQ’s Nicola Sturgeon 19 February 2015 and as the Council have now confirmed, the matter is closed.

DOOMED TOP COURT TO UP STICKS?

Amid rumours of plans loosely based around the Scottish Government’s desire for “modern justice centres” to one day move the Court of Session out of Parliament House, questions remain on who will ultimately benefit financially from any redevelopment of the imposing, gargantuan buildings which make up Scotland’s top court and power seat of the judiciary.

The sprawling complex of high value, if aging buildings – located in the centre of Edinburgh – are described as “inaccessible” “Victorian” and “unfit for modern court needs” in loose discussions between interested parties and land developers.

However, development possibilities for Parliament House reveal a host of difficulties in turning “an overly ornate set of imposing buildings” into a mixture of office, business and residential units.

Concerns of resistance from the legal profession, elements of the judiciary and a “public outcry” appear to be uppermost in the minds of developers and politicians who may wish to move the judges out of their plush Parliament House headquarters to a “greenfield site”.

In the last few years, ‘improvements’ to Parliament House saw £58 million of taxpayers cash spent on updating the constantly crumbling court buildings – which also house the offices of Scotland’s powerful judicial clique and their top judge – the Lord President, currently Lord Carloway (real name Colin Sutherland).

Some in the legal fraternity have since pointed to the recent multi million pound expenditure on improvements as part of a move to clean up Parliament House before a possible transfer of court staff and court functions and eventual sale of the buildings to the private sector.

It also emerged during hearings at the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee in the summer of 2013 – the Scottish Court Service (SCS) – the predecessor to the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS) had previously demanded around £120 million of taxpayers cash be spent on renovating Parliament House.

£60M TO ‘IMPROVE’ PARLIAMENT HOUSE:

In the summer of 2013,  Scotland’s top judge Lord Gill – head of the Scottish Court Service Board, and the Scottish Court Service Chief Executive Eric McQueen appeared before MSPs at the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee to give evidence on court closures and the millions spent on Parliament House – yet neither the judge nor the Courts chief mentioned their astonishing secret to the MSPs present – that the title to Scotland’s highest court buildings had been swiped by the Faculty of Advocates in a deal on the sly with Scottish Ministers.

During questions from Justice Committee MSPs, SCS Chief Executive Eric McQueen gave evidence on the massive £60 million taxpayer funded spend on Parliament House.

The Court Service Chief told MSPs: “We are just coming to the end of the Parliament house contract; in total, the budget for it was £65 million and I think that we expect the final spend to be in the low £60 millions. The project has been delivered on budget, on time and on quality. How it has been delivered is a tribute to the Scottish Court Service.

McQueen continued: “I will give a potted history of the Parliament house situation. About 10 years ago, a scheme was in place that was going to run to way over £120 million. That was brought to a stop to allow us to reassess things and to consider the best strategy. At the same time, we looked at a business case for moving away from Parliament house altogether and having a development on a greenfield or brownfield site on the outskirts of Edinburgh. The major problem with Parliament house is that it is a grade A listed building and is a site of special historical interest. It should be a landmark building for the whole of Scotland.”

In an intervention, the Convener of the Justice Committee – Christine Grahame MSP said: “I am glad that you did not move to a greenfield site. It would have been a bit like going to B&Q. I do not mean to malign B&Q, but I like the old Parliament house building.”

Eric McQueen replied : “Had the decision been taken to move out of Parliament house, that asset would have been left with the Scottish Government. The infrastructure and the services were shot, and there was no fire certificate in place for the building. It would have cost as much to move out as to redevelop the building. From the point of view of the benefit to the nation and to the Scottish Government’s purse, the investment of the £65 million in Parliament house over that five or six year period was quite a sensible business case decision.”

Sitting beside Eric McQueen was Lord President Brian Gill, who did not at any stage of the meeting volunteer information to the Justice Committee in relation to the titles arrangements of Parliament House, despite the multi million pound taxpayer funded refurbishment.

Previous reports on the loss of public ownership of Scotland’s top court – Parliament House can be found here: Parliament House – The lost titles to the City of Edinburgh

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