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PARLIAMENT ACCOUNTS: How Scotland’s judiciary & courts blew £58 million of taxpayers cash on ‘improvements’ to the Court of Session & Parliament House

‘Sundries’ befitting courts & judges: £2.78m. SCOTLAND’S top judges and their attendants at the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS) don’t do detail when it comes to accounting for a £58 million raid on taxpayers cash – to fund ‘improvements’ to Parliament House – seat of the Court of Session.

According to documents released by the SCTS in response to a Freedom of Information request, the staggering £57,517,062.82 splurge on the well known, if rotting, bleak and life ending Parliament House gives little detail to public eyes on exactly what work took place.

In one accounts category, a grand total of £2,780,612.72 of public cash falls under the heading of “Sundries under £100K” – reminiscent of an entry from the ledger of Al Capone’s not so fabled book keeper in the days of  “The Untouchables”.

And, ironically, the City of Edinburgh Council – who used to own the building before Scottish Ministers took the titles for themselves – were paid the sum of £2,436,439.45 as part of the works plan – small compensation for the loss of a building right in the centre of Edinburgh, valued potentially as a site in the hundreds of millions of pounds.

The ‘full’ figures released in documents provided by the SCTS in terms of where the money went reveal the following: Aedas ARCHITECTS £3,014,605.06, Amec Initial building contractor £101,669.52, Archibald McKellar Ltd furniture £259,024.15, City of Edinburgh Council Costs for decant to 1a during works  £2,436,439.45, Currie and Brown Project managers £3,292,438.75, Davis Langdon Cost consultants £554,067.40, Dinardo Partnership Services consultant  £112,672.00, GHI Fit out contractor £858,338.19, Guardian  Storage and removals £269,646.09, Hands of Wycombe  furniture £377,036.41, Heriot Video AV AV court kit £219,729.81, Interserve  Main contractor £42,030,146.95, Thomas Johnstone Limited Fit out contractor £1,021,776.27, W Stewart Client advisor £188,860.05, Sundries under £100k Miscellaneous £2,780,612.72, TOTAL £57,517,062.82

In truth, and to those who have passed through the unfriendly halls of this intimidating structure – which also serves as the command post of Scotland’s Lord President & Lord Justice General – currently Lord Carloway (Colin Sutherland), Parliament House differs little from the mid 1990’s.

Just how was this multi million pound judicial gorge on the public purse explained to the public and Scottish Parliament? Watch the following:

SCTS Chief Eric McQueen to MSPs – We spent £58 million of public cash on Parliament House

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.

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. Attempts by Edinburgh Council to recover the Parliament Hall titles ended in a failed legal action, reported here: WOLFFE HALL: Papers reveal Council’s legal action ‘abandoned’, £320K Faculty refurbishment of Laigh Hall.

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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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

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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GIFT HORSE: Secret gifts register reveals rogue lawyers & law firms using hospitality relationships with Scottish Court Service staff to increase legal aid business, poach clients from rival solicitors

Legal Aid client poaching & hospitality racket in Scots Courts. LAWYERS accused of making suspicious, erroneous or fraudulent legal aid claims appear among a list of high earning legal aid law firms in a register of gifts & ‘hospitality’ received by staff at the Scottish Court Service (SCS).

The documents, finally disclosed to journalists after court bosses failed to convince the Scottish Information Commissioner it should remain secret – identify ‘significant’ hospitality relationships between law firms who have received tens of millions of pounds of legal aid, local courts and court employees right across Scotland.

And it has emerged the extent of ‘hospitality’ to court staff is so great – some local courts have been the scene of ‘gift wars’ between law firms – with solicitors raising the stakes over rivals using hospitality to ensure business came their way at the expense of competitors.

The extent of gift giving in exchange for business referrals – raises questions over whether it is appropriate for court staff – who run the courts at taxpayers expense – to enter into hospitality relationships  with solicitors who have a stake in dragging on court cases to beef up their fees and claims for legal aid.

And, some law firms on the list have been implicated in allegations of questionable legal aid claims. In other cases, law firms , activity resulting in criminal charges against staff.

In one case, the law firm of NS Lockharts Solicitors – run by Niels S Lockhart – a sole practitioner in Kilmarnock who was the subject of a Scottish Legal Aid Board investigation into huge sums of legal aid claims of over £600,000 in three years also appears in the list. NS Lockharts Solicitors are identified as providing hospitality to local court staff in Ayr Sheriff Court.

Lockhart ‘withdrew’ from the legal aid register after an investigation by the Scottish Legal Aid Board.

In another case of gift giving between lawyers on the legal aid ticket and court staff – the law firm of Bell & Co Solicitors are also identified as hospitality providers to staff at Kilmarnock Sheriff Court. However, Bell & Co hit the headlines two years ago when one of their Paralegals – Arlene Reid – was jailed for two years – for embezzlement and mortgage fraud totalling £87K after Reid defrauded her own employers and the Alliance & Leicester Building Society.

Gifts Register identifies Scots law firms ‘hospitality’ to court employees The list of law firms, together with a list of hospitality released by the Scottish Court Service identifies law firms who receive millions in taxpayer funded legal aid every year.

Hospitality on the list ranges from boxes of chocolates, alcohol, invitations to dinners with the ‘vested interests club’ – top lawyers, law firms, the Faculty of Advocates & the Law Society of Scotland,  big business hosts & even “Royal Garden Parties”. Other hospitality include trips on boats, gift vouchers for high street stores, dinner parties with Police, and – bunches of flowers.

The extent of hospitality relationships between court staff and law firms have raised suspicions SCS staff are providing lawyers & law firms with personal favours in return, which in some instances are leading to criminal cases ‘taking their time’ through the courts owing to overly friendly relationships with local law firms & local court staff.

Information has also been provided to journalists – alleging undeclared financial relationships between court staff and law firms, in relation to the purchase of properties & land, provision of free or discounted legal services to SCS staff in their personal legal affairs, and instances of SCS staff providing return favours for solicitors when asked to do so.

Speaking to Diary of Injustice earlier today, a solicitor from a law firm which has provided small amounts of hospitality as a matter of courtesy and thanks to local court staff, said he was aware some law firms were offering additional gifts to SCS staff as a way of drawing in business. He described the situation as “unfair practice”.

The solicitor told DOI he was aware of several cases where court staff received discounted or free legal services – from law firms who were taking clients from others including his own firm.

Asked if he believed all hospitality provided to court staff was being declared, the solicitor replied: “No, it is not.”

And. in an example of law firms poaching each other’s clients using hospitality to court staff – DOI uncovered a case where ‘regular’ criminal legal aid clients of one law firm – were allegedly directed to another law firm by a court clerk in receipt of ‘hospitality’.

However, the switch did not result in a good move for the clients –  who ended up jailed for minor criminal offences after a trainee solicitor from the law firm they were sent to – messed up their defences and pleadings.

Commenting on the documents, the Scottish Legal Aid Board said: “If there was ever any evidence that a solicitor providing legal aid had acted in an inappropriate manner in relation to the provision of legal aid we would investigate and, if appropriate, use the sanctions available to us under the legal aid legislation.”

In an earlier investigation by DOI, it was revealed Gillian Thompson OBE – now the Judicial Complaints Reviewer (JCR) – authored a report on undeclared relationships between employees of the Scottish Court Service, law firms, and other vested interests. The report, published by DOI – revealed court staff are making money on the side via relationships with law firms.

Diary of Injustice reported on concerns regarding hospitality involving Scottish Court Service employees where Ms Thompson was asked by the Scottish Court Service to investigate reports of irregularities in hospitality given to court staff. The request for the investigation came after the SCS received Freedom of Information requests regarding hospitality in the courts, prompting concerns some staff may have accepted gifts or hospitality but failed to register.

Report said SCS Registers were insufficient, and Court staff involved in private gain failed to declare. Gillian Thompson’s Report on Hospitality & Gifts in the SCS stated:  “The information currently captured on the registers is insufficient to provide assurance that staff are using their common sense and considering issues such as conflict of interest.

Ms Thompson went on to recommend the “SCS should revise the Policy on Acceptance of Gifts, Rewards and Hospitality to ensure that it is fit for purpose for all staff, taking account of the various roles performed within SCS. It may also be time to revisit the levels of value for gifts and hospitality.”

The former AIB’s report also revealed court staff were using their positions to earn money privately from their links with lawyers and law firms operating in courts, stating “Several staff raised the issue of sheriff clerks who carry out extrajudicial taxations and private assessments and who personally benefit financially from these activities.”

Ms Thompson’s report roundly condemned this practice, stating: “Not only is it inappropriate in terms of the civil service code requirements for staff who are public servants to be able to receive private gain from their employment it is also highly divisive when other staff see such benefits being derived from simply being in the right post of Auditor of Court within the Sheriff Courts.”

Ms Thompson recommended in her report the “SCS should bring the practice of sheriff clerks profiting privately from their employment by SCS to an end as quickly as possible”.

HOW COURT CHIEFS LOST HOSPITALITY INFORMATION BATTLE

The Scottish Court Service initially refused to release the gift register, claiming “the names of the gift or hospitality provider would be deemed as personal information” and “as the provider of the gift or hospitality was not made aware at the time that their name may be released, we consider disclosure of such is likely to bring the Scottish Court Service into conflict with the data protection principles.”

However, the request – from DOI – triggered a review of hospitality policy at the Scottish Court Service, leading to names of ‘’hospitality’ providers being added to the register.

Richard Warner of the SCS said: “I can advise you that due to your request for this information, the Scottish Court Service has changed the policy covering hospitality and gifts to ensure that the provider of any hospitality or gift are made aware that their name shall be entered on to our register and may be disclosed if requested in any future information request. This policy change shall take effect as from 1 January 2014 so the release of names may be considered in any future request for gifts or hospitality offered from this date. The policy also states that if the provider does not consent to their name being considered for release then the gift or hospitality cannot be accepted by a member of staff.”

After a request for review of refusal to disclose the information, the SCS again refused – this time around, claiming it would cost them too much to contact each law firm to ask permission to disclose their ‘hospitality’ to court employees. The SCS claimed they would have to contact every lawyer who gave a gift and this would cost too much to provide the information.

DOI journalists took the matter up with the Scottish Information Commissioner – who requested Courts Chief Eric McQueen provide an explanation as to why the courts were blocking release of information on hospitality relationships between the legal profession and court staff.

John Kelly, Freedom of Information Officer at the SIC said: “Having written to and discussed the matter with the SCS, without being required to do so by way of a formal Decision Notice, the SCS has agreed to provide you with the information requested, subject to redactions in terms of section 38(1)(b) of FOISA on the basis that to disclose some of the names of individuals would breach the first data protection principle of the Data Protection Act 1998 (the DPA). I understand that the names of Solicitor and Law Firms will be provided.”

After the intervention of the Scottish Information Commissioner, the SCS subsequently released the hospitality list to DOI.

Richard Warner for the SCS said: “Having reconsidered your request, and the SCS response, I now attach a list which indicates law firms where this information has been recorded.  For the reasons stated in our earlier response this does not include the names of any individuals concerned as there could have been no expectation on their part that this information would be circulated or published widely.  As indicated previously, steps are being taken to ensure that individual persons are made aware at the relevant time that their details made be released as a result of an information request.”

 

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WOLFFE HALL: As Edinburgh City Council demand return of Parliament House land titles, papers reveal Scottish Ministers refused to help recover ‘gift’ of Scotland’s top court buildings to Faculty of Advocates

Court battle looms over Scotland’s top court buildings swiped by legal fraternity AS LAND GRABS go, the Faculty of Advocates ‘assuming title’ to parts of the nation’s top court buildings – Parliament House in Edinburgh – must rank pretty high on the list of Scottish land swindles.

Even more so if you take into account the land grabbers in this case – highly paid advocates clad in Victorian robes – who appoint each other as judges, prosecutors and the like, and debate ordinary folk’s lives, loves & rights as if they did not even exist – have the last say and last word on ‘justice’ and many aspects of politics and public life in what passes for ‘modern day’ Scotland.

The great Parliament Hall land title swindle – revealed by land reform campaigner Andy Wightman – where land titles to the buildings of Scotland’s top courts were ‘gifted’ by Scottish Ministers to the Faculty of Advocates – has now prompted Edinburgh City Council to demand the return of what is, common good property – our top courts – which clearly have significant interest to the nation.

However, Scottish Ministers – including the First Minister, lawyers and other Govt. advisers, appear to feel otherwise.

A trove of eighty eight pages of documents  released to DOI under Freedom of Information legislation reveal the Scottish Government plan to do nothing 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 is clear Scottish Ministers favour leaving the titles to the nation’s top courts with the vested interests of the legal profession.

The titles to the Laigh Hall – Parliament House – Queen Street – currently stand 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.

“The City of Edinburgh Council has intimated to the Scottish Government that it considers that it is the rightful heritable proprietor of both Parliament House and the Laigh Hall. It contends that the property was part of the Common Good Fund which is made up of grants of land owned by the Council. Consequently it maintains that Scottish Ministers should never have taken title to it. Representatives of the Council have asked that the position be rectified and the property returned to the Council. Scottish Government officials have met with Council officials and suggested to them that their remedy lies with the Keeper.

The Council may feel compelled to take action because, in their view,the property may have been part of the Common Good. Ministers, will be aware of disputes over Common Good land in the past. For example, when the Long Leases (Scotland) Act 2012, which converts ultra-long leases to ownership, was going through Parliament [redacted] land reform campaigner argued that the Waverley Market in Edinburgh was part of the common good. Edinburgh City Council said it was not part of the common good but still argued that the Waverley Market should not convert to full ownership under the Bill, so that the Council would remain the landlord in the lease over the property. In the end, the Bill was amended so that commercial leases with less than 175 years to run were not covered, which had the effect of excluding the Waverley Market from the Bill.”

An internal Scottish Government briefing of the meeting which took place between Edinburgh City Council and the Scottish Government makes for grim reading at the Council after Scottish Government civil servants stated the Council’s claim for a return of the titles may rest on moral rather than any legal right:

“Parliament House – Meeting With City of Edinburgh Council – 3 Dec. 2014 – – Main Points

SG – this was a courtesy meeting to hear what the concerns of CEC were as they had had difficulty finding somebody in central government to engage with.

CEC – an elected member had triggered an examination of the Parliament House non domino title and CEC officials concluded that the title trail was mistaken and CEC had an interest still. They had examined titles from the 1550s, 19th century, 1905 Common good records, 1925 entry in registers etc.

They were unhappy with the Scottish Ministers title and the subsequent transfer to the advocates and the SCS. It seemed that their case rested on a perceived moral right, rather than any legal titular right.

SG emphasised that it had no locus because:
• Questions about land registered titles are for the Keeper and the Keeper’s indemnity;
• The Scottish Government had transferred the property to the Advocates (Laigh Hall), and the Scottish Courts Service** a judicial led body at arms-length from the SG and so we could not discuss what we did not own.”

A detailed briefing prepared by a civil servant sets out what happened and how the Faculty of Advocates ‘secured’ ownership to parts of the sprawling, highly prized real estate which is Scotland’s top court and symbol of judicial & legal power:

“The position as regards title to the entire property is unclear, however, it would appear that Scottish Ministers (formerly the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions) did own part of it and so steps were taken to register a title in order to remove any uncertainty. Consequently, a voluntary registration was granted in favour of Scottish Ministers on 23/11/2005 with a date of entry of 10/11/2005.

As part of the process of registration the Keeper of the Registers of Scotland received a letter from the City of Edinburgh Council confirming that the Council had no right, title or interest in the property. On that understanding, the Keeper issued Ministers with a Land Certificate without exclusion of indemnity which has the effect of the Keeper having to indemnify a proprietor who suffers a loss as a result of the title being successfully challenged.

Scottish Ministers subsequently made an onward transfer in January 2006 of part of the property, namely Laigh Hall which sits underneath Parliament Hall, to the Faculty of Advocates who now hold a registered title.

When the Scottish Court Service became an independent body corporate on 1 April 2010 title to Parliament House was transferred to it under the Property Transfer Order made under powers in the Judiciary and Courts (Scotland) Act 2008. Scottish Ministers therefore no longer hold a title to either Parliament House or the Laigh Hall.”

At this time Edinburgh City Council is thought to be considering its next move.

If legal action is to take place, the Council will ultimately be represented by top advocates who as members of the Faculty of Advocates will have an interest in ownership in Parliament House. The case will be defended by the Faculty of Advocates and will be heard in a court within Parliament House – partly owned by the Faculty of Advocates and the ‘arms length’ institution of the Scottish Court Service – so ‘arms length’ it squanders £60 million of taxpayers money on buildings not even owned by taxpayers.

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.

TOP JUDGE SILENT OVER PARLIAMENT TITLE SWAP

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.

Pressed for a statement on why Lord Gill or Eric McQueen did not inform the Justice Committee of the fact tens of millions of pounds of taxpayer money had been spent on a building partly owned by the Faculty of Advocates – the Judicial Office refused to give any comment.

 

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WOLFFE HALL: Parliament House – seat of justice – lost to Edinburgh as investigation reveals Scottish Government ‘gifted’ land titles to Faculty of Advocates after £58m refurbishment

Scotland’s top courts ‘gifted’ to advocates in secret deal with Scottish Ministers. PARLIAMENT HOUSE – the seat of power for Scotland’s judiciary and the nation’s highest, most expensive, elusive and pro-big business courts – has been lost to the Common Good and the citizens of Edinburgh who paid for it’s construction – after it was revealed earlier this week Scottish Ministers had gifted the land titles of the court buildings to the Faculty of Advocates .

And, yesterday, in an attempt to head off calls for an immediate return of Scotland’s highest courts to public ownership, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said there was no easy solution to recovering the land titles for the citizens of Edinburgh – who originally paid for the construction of Parliament House.

Details surrounding the loss of Parliament House to Edinburgh – come from an investigation undertaken by well known land reform campaigner Andy Wightman – who discovered that in 2006 the Scottish Government asked Edinburgh City Council to confirm the ownership of Parliament House – which includes Parliament Hall and Laigh Hall. The moves by the Scottish Government to clarify ownership of the court buildings occurred prior to the taxpayer funded £58 million refurbishment project (originally budgeted at over £120m) of the sprawling court buildings.

However, after inquiries by government lawyers on the exact ownership of Scotland’s most highest courts, Edinburgh City Council concluded they were unaware of who owned Parliament House. This led to ownership transferring to Scottish Ministers who then allowed the Faculty of Advocates to register the title deeds to the interior of the building in its name.

From investigations carried out by Andy Wightman, it transpired the Faculty of Advocates had in-fact, lobbied the Scottish Government to hand over ownership.

Writing on his blog, Mr Wightman said: “The Faculty of Advocates has for centuries regarded Parliament House as theirs. They had almost exclusive use of it and so, by means as yet unclear, within a month of Scottish Ministers taking ownership, the Faculty persuaded Scottish Ministers to convey to its ownership for no consideration the room known as the Laigh Hall within Parliament House.”

The title deeds to Parliament House now state the interior of the building is owned by the Faculty of Advocates while the exterior comes under the government’s ownership as part of the Scottish Courts Service.

The full in-depth investigation by Andy Wightman is available here: Edinburgh Council loses Parliament House

During First Minister’s Questions at Holyrood yesterday, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was asked a question by Alison Johnstone  MSP (Lothians, Green Party) about the Parliament Hall land grab by the Faculty of Advocates.

In her reply, featured below along with video footage of FMQs, Nicola Sturgeon claimed she found no fault on the part of the Scottish Government – who handed over the titles to the Faculty of Advocates – effectively little more than a lawyer’s lobby group. The First Minister went on to warn “ there is no easy solution to the issue of restoring title to the City of Edinburgh Council” without giving a real explanation of why the titles were transferred in the first place.

The First Minister also gave no explanation on why £58 million pounds of taxpayers money was thrown at the Court of Session buildings which were then effectively handed over to the Faculty of Advocates free of charge.

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

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.

During the summer of 2013,  Scotland’s top judge Lord Gill – who is 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 said: “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 by Eric McQueen was none other than Lord President Brian Gill himself, 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.

Today, a spokesperson for the Scottish Court Service said: “The title to Parliament House, which includes the Laigh Hall situated underneath Parliament Hall, was registered by Scottish Ministers in 2006. The ownership of the interior of Laigh Hall was transferred to the Faculty of Advocates by the Scottish Ministers. Court buildings under the ownership of the Scottish Ministers were transferred to the Scottish Court Service (SCS) in 2010 under the Transfer of Property and in accordance with the Judiciary and Courts (Scotland) Act 2008.

Parliament House is a public building and is home to our Supreme Courts. The SCS recently completed an extensive £58 million redevelopment of the courthouse ahead of schedule and within budget. Following the refurbishment, an exhibition, ‘The Hidden Gem’, became an Edinburgh Fringe event attracting thousands of visitors. Parliament House also hosts annual open days enabling the public to better understand our legal system, while Parliament Hall is  open to visitors during working hours.”

Asked how much was returned to public coffers via “The Hidden Gem” exhibition, a spokesperson for the SCS replied: “The Fringe event was open to the public without an admission charge and marked the completion of the substantial modernisation programme by the Scottish Court Service which conserves Parliament House for future generations and provides the modern and digital facilities required by the Scottish justice system. Our position is that Court buildings under the ownership of the Scottish Ministers were transferred to the Scottish Court Service (SCS) in 2010 under the Transfer of Property and in accordance with the Judiciary and Courts (Scotland) Act 2008.”

The Scottish Government refused to answer calls for a statement and questions on whether any attempt would be made to recover the £58m of taxpayers money spent on Parliament House . Neither the Dean of the Faculty of Advocates – James Wolffe QC or the Faculty itself have issued any statement on the matter so far.

 

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Vested Interests : Protests of Scotland’s anti-transparency top judge questioned as Courts Chief tells MSPs register of interests cause no problems for court staff

Courts Chief admission to Holyrood contradicts anti-transparency protests of top judge. CLAIMS made by Scotland’s top judge, Lord President Lord Brian Gill that forcing judges to disclose their hidden wealth, secret earnings, business & personal relationships, directorships, offshore finances, gifts & hospitality in a published register of interests may cause undue harm & harassment and made it difficult to recruit for the judiciary, have been dealt a blow by the Chief Executive of the Scottish Court Service (SCS) who has been forced to admit to MSPs that no problems have been caused to all other court workers who are required to declare their interests & hospitality.

Responding to queries from MSPs on the subject of Petition PE1458: Register of Interests for members of Scotland’s judiciary, Mr Eric McQueen, Chief Executive of the SCS, who recently gave testimony to the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee Parliament along with Lord Gill regarding court closures across Scotland, told the Scottish Parliament’s Petitions Committee in a letter last week the SCS implementation of a register of interests & hospitality for its own employees “has not posed any difficulties and staff register their interests as appropriate.”

Court Chief tells MSPs in letter : No harm has come to staff who declare interests. Thank you for your letter of 25 September 2013 in which you seek the Scottish Court Service,s views on what the petition is seeking. You also asked whether there have been any issues for the SCS in operation a register of interests for the people within the SCS.

The Committee will be aware that the Scottish Courts Service is a body corporate established by the Judiciary and Courts (Scotland) Act 2008. The statutory function of the SCS is to provide the resources and support to the courts of Scotland and the judiciary in those courts. It also provides support to the Lord President and other members of the judiciary who have leadership functions.

The subject matter of the petition is not a matter which has been discussed by the Scottish Court Service Board. It is not a matter within the statutory responsibility of the SCS and as such it is not appropriate that the SCS expresses any view on the subject matter of the petition.

The Scottish Court Service has maintained a register of interests for staff for many years in line with standard practice across the civil service. It has not posed any difficulties and staff register interests, as appropriate.

The admission from the Chief Executive of Scotland’s courts that staff work within a register of their own interests without causing personal harm, raises serious questions over outlandish claims presented by Lord Gill in earlier written submissions to MSPs that bringing similar transparency to the judiciary and requiring judges to comply with a register of interests may have “unintended consequences” and somehow damage the judiciary.

Writing to MSPs earlier this year in February, Lord Gill – who opposes greater transparency of judges interests, said he feared judges could be harassed by the media and their privacy ruined. Diary of Injustice reported on Lord Gill’s attack against transparency calls, here : A MATTER OF TRUST : Scotland’s top judge Lord Gill attacks Scottish Parliament petition calling for a Register of Interests for Scots Judiciary

Top judge tells MSPs forcing judiciary to be honest about their interests may have unintended consequences. Lord Gill protested : “The introduction of such a register could also have unintended consequences. Consideration requires to be given to judges’ privacy and freedom from harassment by aggressive media or hostile individuals, including dissatisfied litigants. It is possible that the information held on such a register could be abused. These are significant concerns.

Lord Gill continued : “If publicly criticised or attacked, the judicial office holder cannot publicly defend himself or herself, unlike a politician. The establishment of such a register therefore may have the unintended consequence of eroding public confidence in the Judiciary. It also raises the question whether such a measure would have an adverse impact on the recruitment and retention of the Judiciary.”

In two further letters to MSPs, the Lord President went on to refuse to attend the Scottish Parliament to answer questions on his opposition to Petition PE1458: Register of Interests for members of Scotland’s judiciary and even went so far as to inform MSPs they could not insist he attend an evidence session because of loopholes in the Scotland Act.

However, MSPs on the Scottish Parliament’s Petitions Committee have already heard from Judicial Complaints Reviewer (JCR) Moi Ali – who supports a register of judicial interests, that increased transparency of the judiciary can only increase public confidence in the justice system. Moi Ali told MSPs in a letter : “Better transparency would enhance the standing of that judiciary and bring judicial office holders into line with other holders of important roles in public life.”

Further reporting on JCR Moi Ali’s submission to the Petitions Committee was featured here : ‘Better Transparency would enhance Judiciary’ as Scotland’s independent Judicial Complaints Reviewer issues support for Register of interests for judges

Video footage of testimony given by the Judicial Complaints Reviewer has been previously reported here : As Scotland’s top judge battles on against transparency, Judicial Complaints Reviewer tells MSPs judges should register their interests like others in public life

Given the admission of the Chief Executive of the SCS, who’s job it is to keep the courts working, Lord Gill’s arguments that more transparency in the form of a register of interests could cause harm to the judiciary are now seriously in doubt, given the fact registers of interest are common in public life and that there is no honest reason why the judiciary should be exempt from declaring their interests.

Previous articles on the lack of transparency within Scotland’s judiciary, investigations of the judiciary by Diary of Injustice including reports from the Sunday Mail newspaper, and video footage of debates at the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee can be found here : A Register of Interests for Scotland’s Judiciary

 

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