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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Tuesday, February 9, 2021


Malicious Prosecutions

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Lewis Macdonald)

The next item of business is a statement by the Lord Advocate, on malicious prosecutions. The Lord Advocate will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.


The Lord Advocate (James Wolffe)

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I am grateful for the opportunity—[Inaudible.] I am sorry about that sound issue, Presiding Officer.

I am grateful for the opportunity to make a statement following the disposal last week of the actions that David Whitehouse and Paul Clark brought against me. Those actions concerned events that predated my appointment as Lord Advocate, but it was and is my responsibility, as the current incumbent, to account for them. The on-going proceedings that relate to the matter constrain what I can say today, but I welcome the fact that I am now free to begin the process of public and parliamentary accountability and to reiterate the commitment that the Crown has given to that process.

The prosecutions that gave rise to the cases arose from police investigations into the purchase of Rangers Football Club by Craig Whyte in 2011 and into the administration of the club and its sale to Charles Green in 2012. The investigations were large and complex. Ultimately, seven individuals were prosecuted. This statement concerns only the position of Mr Clark and Mr Whitehouse.

On 14 November 2014, Mr Clark and Mr Whitehouse were detained and brought to Glasgow. They were held in custody before appearing in court on 17 November on a petition that contained charges that related to Mr Whyte’s purchase of Rangers. That started the clock for a statutory time bar that, unless extended, required the Crown to serve an indictment in respect of the charges by 16 September 2015.

In High Court cases, after an accused has appeared on petition, the Crown undertakes a process of investigation and analysis that is called precognition. When it is completed, the precognition contains a detailed narrative of the evidence and an analysis of whether the evidence is sufficient to support criminal charges.

The precognition is submitted to Crown counsel for a decision on whether to issue an indictment. Precognition is not a statutory requirement, but it is a long-standing, routine and essential feature of Crown practice in relation to High Court cases. It provides assurance that there is a proper evidential basis for the indictment and, along with Crown counsel’s instruction, it provides a record of the basis for the decision.

This case was exceptional in its scale and complexity. By early September 2015, with the expiry of the time bar approaching, the precognition process was incomplete and essential investigations were still on-going. On 3 September, the Crown applied to the court for a nine-month extension of the time bar; the sheriff granted a three-month extension. An appeal by Mr Clark and Mr Whitehouse against that extension was refused. In the meantime, on 2 and 3 September, Mr Clark and Mr Whitehouse appeared in court again on a second petition that contained new and separate charges that related to the second matter that the police had been investigating—the administration of Rangers and its sale to Charles Green in 2012.

On 16 September 2015, Mr Clark and Mr Whitehouse, with five other accused, were indicted. The charges against them derived from the November 2014 and September 2015 petitions. At that time, the precognition process in relation to the November 2014 petition was still incomplete and there was, demonstrably, no precognition in relation to the September 2015 petition, which had only just been initiated. Essential investigations were still on-going in respect of the charges that derived from the November 2014 petition, and there was evidence available that was—objectively—obviously inconsistent with the charges against these two accused that derived from the September 2015 petition.

On 2 December 2015, a second indictment was served that superseded the first. At a preliminary hearing in February 2016, following legal argument, Crown counsel withdrew certain of the charges. On 22 February, the judge dismissed the remaining charges against Mr Clark and Mr Whitehouse. Crown counsel advised the court that consideration would be given to a further indictment against them. A Crown Office press statement that was issued that day indicated that a fresh indictment would be brought, but that was corrected by a further statement the following day.

On 25 May 2016, the Crown advised Mr Clark and Mr Whitehouse that there would be no further proceedings against them. On 3 June 2016, Crown counsel formally advised the court of that position.

In August 2016, Mr Clark and Mr Whitehouse initiated civil actions against me—I had been appointed on 2 June 2016—to seek damages on the grounds of malicious prosecution and breaches of articles 5 and 8 of the European convention on human rights. They also advanced claims against the chief constable of Police Scotland.

I advanced a defence that relied on established legal authority that the Lord Advocate is immune from common-law liability. That defence was upheld at first instance, but, in October 2019, the inner house of the Court of Session overturned the previous legal authority and allowed the claims to proceed.

On 20 August 2020, I admitted liability to Mr Clark and Mr Whitehouse. Those admissions followed the conclusion of a very substantial and lengthy investigation that was undertaken by the legal team, including external counsel, instructed on my behalf. As a result of that investigation, I concluded that the decisions to place Mr Clark and Mr Whitehouse on petition in September 2015 and to indict them were indefensible in law.

I concluded that those decisions proceeded without probable cause—that is, without a proper evidential basis—in circumstances that met the legal test for malicious prosecution. That legal test can, in certain circumstances, be met even though no individual had malice, in the popular sense of a spiteful motive. My acceptance of liability in this case did not depend on any individual being malicious in that popular sense.

I cannot, at this time, disclose in detail the basis upon which liability was admitted, but, when it is free to do so, the Crown will disclose the basis for those admissions in full—including to this Parliament. What I can say is that there were, in this case, profound departures from the normal practices, including precognition, that are designed to ensure—and routinely do ensure—that any prosecution in the High Court has a proper basis.

I also admitted breaches of article 5 in respect of the detention of Mr Clark and Mr Whitehouse in November 2014 and September 2015, and of article 8 in respect of the incorrect press release of February 2016.

After the admissions of liability, mediations took place with both pursuers, and agreement was reached to settle their claims. Each of them has been paid £10.5 million in damages, and, to date, more than £3 million has been paid to them in aggregate by way of expenses. Those two pursuers were very high-earning professional people and the damages paid reflect a reasonable estimate of the loss that they sustained as a result of being prosecuted. I have written to the Justice Committee about the financial implications.

On 24 December 2020, I issued written apologies to each of Mr Clark and Mr Whitehouse. They should not have been prosecuted, and, as the current Lord Advocate and head of the system of criminal prosecution, I apologised unreservedly for the fact that they had been. I reiterate that unreserved apology publicly to Mr Clark and Mr Whitehouse today.

Although the case involved significant departures from standard practice, lessons have been learned and will continue to be learned. The precognition process has been reinforced, and, in 2018, I established new arrangements for the management and oversight of large and complex cases. Those arrangements are now well established and provide a substantial safeguard against anything like this happening again.

In my JUSTICE human rights day lecture in December 2016, I said this:

“a fair and independent prosecution service, taking decisions rigorously, independently and robustly in accordance with the evidence, is, I believe, essential to the freedom under the law which we enjoy as citizens of this country.”

Scottish prosecutors and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service have a justified reputation for fairness, integrity and independence. The seriousness of what happened in this case should not obscure the truth that, day in and day out, Scotland’s public prosecutors and the staff who support them fulfil their responsibilities with professionalism and skill. They take hard decisions rigorously, robustly and in accordance with the evidence, and they secure the public interest in the fair, effective and robust administration of criminal justice in Scotland.

In this case, there was a serious failure in the system of prosecution. It did not live up to the standards that I expect, that the public and this Parliament are entitled to expect and that the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service expects of itself.

What happened in this case should not have happened. As the Lord Advocate and head of the system of prosecution in Scotland, I tender my apology to this Parliament and to the public for the fact that it did happen and for the consequent cost to the public purse. I confirm my commitment and that of the Crown to supporting a process of inquiry into what happened in this case once related matters have concluded, and I express my determination that nothing like it should ever happen again.

The Lord Advocate will now take questions on the issues that were raised in his statement. I intend to allow about 20 minutes for questions, after which we will move on to the next item of business.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

I remind members that I am a practising solicitor, and I thank the Lord Advocate for advance sight of his statement.

There has been an extraordinary catalogue of unexplained and profound departures from normal practices. What is “indefensible”, to use the Lord Advocate’s word, is that, given that the

“decisions proceeded without probable cause—that is, without a proper evidential basis”,

the prosecution was malicious.

Let us be absolutely clear: this was not simple human error or an obscure legal mistake. Rather, our system of prosecution has admitted that it acted with malice in its move to throw innocent men behind bars and destroy their reputations. That begs an obvious question: how many times in Scottish legal history has there been a malicious prosecution?

In any event, I note that the Crown is, crucially, committed to a process of inquiry. Can the Lord Advocate confirm that there will be a fully independent, judge-led public inquiry that demands to know why malicious prosecutions were pursued in defiance of evidence? Will it investigate the actions of the Lord Advocate, his predecessor and all agents who were involved? If not, how on earth can the Crown expect the people of Scotland to conclude anything other than that it is brushing this appalling state of affairs under the carpet?

The Lord Advocate

Given that I have come to Parliament at the first opportunity when I have been free to do so, I hope that nobody would suggest that I could properly be accused of “brushing” anything “under the carpet”. I have committed myself and the Crown to supporting a process of inquiry once related matters have been concluded. Those matters need to be resolved before the process of inquiry can proceed.

On Mr Kerr’s first point, as I observed in my statement, the legal test for malicious prosecution can be met in circumstances even when no individual has malice in the popular sense of their having a spiteful motive. I should make it clear that my acceptance of liability in this case did not depend on any individual being malicious in the popular sense. That is not for a moment to minimise the seriousness of what happened. Quite the reverse is the case; as I observed in my statement, what happened represents a very serious failure in the system of prosecution in Scotland.

I have been asked how many times there has been a malicious prosecution in Scotland. As I emphasised in my statement, a process that is known as precognition is undertaken routinely in High Court cases. That process necessarily involves careful collection, investigation and analysis of evidence. It involves a system of cross-checking and should provide significant reassurance to the public that, in our system of prosecution, cases are routinely brought on a proper basis.

As I explained in my statement, in this case, that process was incomplete when the case was indicted; essential investigations had not been completed. The normal processes that are routinely followed in every High Court case were not followed, but the public should take reassurance from what I have said that the prosecution system in Scotland is robust, fair and independent, and is one on which they can rely.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

I, too, thank the Lord Advocate for advance sight of his statement.

This case raises serious concerns. That it was thought that the Lord Advocate was immune from common-law liability would suggest that he should also have been beyond reproach. We imagine that there are, in the system, checks and balances between the police and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, with both of them challenging and questioning the activities and evidence in a case. That appears either not to have happened or to have gone seriously wrong in this case, with both being sued by David Whitehouse and Paul Clark.

How could that have happened? Were concerns raised, internally or externally, about the actions of both organisations at the time, especially when it came to light that there was inconsistent evidence?

The Lord Advocate said that the system has been improved, but there cannot be proper scrutiny until we know exactly what went wrong in the first place. Until that happens, how can we expect to restore confidence in the system?

The Lord Advocate

The first thing that I should say is that, at this time, there are continuing live proceedings relating to the matter, which regrettably—I do regret it—constrains what I can say.

I have committed the Crown to engaging fully with public accountability in the matter, and the Crown has committed to making more information available when it is free to do that. That includes the basis upon which liability was admitted in this case and supporting the process of inquiry when it is possible to do that. I hope that that gives some assurance to Rhoda Grant that lessons will be learned and that there will be public understanding of what happened.

Perhaps it is worth noting—I do not say this to minimise, in any sense, what happened in this case—that the court fulfilled its functions in dealing with certain charges and the Crown fulfilled its responsibilities in withdrawing charges and ultimately confirming that no prosecution would proceed. I do not say that to minimise the significance of a prosecution having been brought without proper basis. However, on those issues the checks and balances in the system fulfilled their functions.

As I explained, there is, in the Crown Office, routinely preparation of High Court cases, which involves cross-checking of cases by staff of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service initially, and ultimately by Crown counsel, on the basis of there being a full narrative of the evidence and analysis of that evidence. Those processes are designed to ensure that we can be confident—I am confident—that, across the system in Scotland, prosecutions are brought properly and that this case was wholly exceptional.

Can the Lord Advocate reiterate what lessons have been learned and what improvements are being made to ensure that this will never happen again?

The Lord Advocate

The key lesson relates to the management of large and complex cases. As I said in my statement, I have instituted new procedures for internal management and oversight of the particular category of case. The arrangements involve early agreement of the investigation and prosecution strategy; early and continuous engagement with the police; a project management approach to case preparation; a system of case management panels to scrutinise case strategy and to keep under review the progress of the case, with reference to the strategy; and any issues that might emerge being addressed.

All of that aligns with a protocol that the High Court issued in 2018, with my support, in relation to the management of such cases once they are in court. That protocol, again, encourages a proactive approach to the management of such cases.

Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

The Lord Advocate referred to the payment of £24 million that was made to Whitehouse and Clark, but that sum might well be just the tip of the iceberg, because the report suggests that the total cost of the case could top £100 million, given that there are outstanding cases.

Will the Lord Advocate tell us whether it is correct that, in addition to those payments, Whitehouse and Clark were also given tax indemnities so that, should HM Revenue and Customs pursue them for payment of tax, that demand would be met by the Scottish Crown Office, and that the cost to the Scottish taxpayer will therefore be far higher than the £24 million that has been paid out already?

The Lord Advocate

I acknowledge the significance of the sum involved. Murdo Fraser is correct in observing that, with other cases pending, the cost to the public purse will increase and the ultimate cost is yet to be seen.

The approach that has been taken in settling cases was to make a reasonable estimate of the actual loss that individuals could demonstrate. An arrangement was entered into such that if—it is “if”—they can properly show that they have sustained additional loss of the type that Mr Fraser described, that loss will be borne.

If that happens, the Crown will account to the Justice Committee, as it did last week, for the costs in the cases.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

Now that it has been established that the Lord Advocate does not have absolute immunity from civil liability, will the Crown be more cautious in pursuing prosecutions, and will that mean that criminals are less likely to be convicted?

The Lord Advocate

I am determined that any change in the law regarding the immunity of the Lord Advocate should not have that effect. That is one reason why I have put in place measures to strengthen the management of large and complex cases.

It is essential that there is a proper basis for prosecutorial decisions in all cases. As I explained in my statement, the process of precognition that is routinely undertaken in all High Court cases provides confidence and assurance both to prosecutors and to the public.

I have confidence in the robustness of Scotland’s prosecutors. They make difficult decisions every day, in exercising their judgment. I am determined to have in place systems that enable prosecutors to continue to take robust decisions in effective prosecution of crime.

James Kelly (Glasgow) (Lab)

The decisions that were made in this case might predate the current Lord Advocate, but they raise serious questions about decision making and accountability within the Crown Office. Serious errors were made. The system failed, and we have been told that the cost to the public purse will be at least £24 million. What other area of the Scottish budget has had to be to be raided to fund the incompetence of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service?

The Lord Advocate

As the Cabinet Secretary for Finance told Parliament last week, arrangements have been made so that the cases will not affect the Crown Office’s resource budget or its operational effectiveness. The member’s question would be better directed to the finance secretary.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

This is a true scandal. In monetary terms, it is on a scale with BiFab and the Ferguson Marine shipyard. The colossal waste of taxpayers’ money runs to tens of millions of pounds. That money could have been spent on supporting businesses during the pandemic, on educational catch-up or on investment in mental health. There might be worse news to come, given that we do not yet know the extent of Police Scotland’s exposure or of the additional cases to which the Lord Advocate referred.

Given that the overturning of the Hester v MacDonald decision means that the Lord Advocate can now be held liable for serious errors from the past, what assurance can he offer that there are no other skeletons lurking in the Crown Office closet?

The Lord Advocate

The principal assurance that I can give is the description that I have already given of the routine precognition processes that are carried out in every High Court case.

It is fair to say that this case was wholly exceptional in all sorts of ways—that is the principal answer to Liam McArthur’s question. We have a system of prosecution that has demonstrated robustness, fairness, effectiveness and integrity. This case was a serious falling below the standards that all of us expect of that system, but the very fact that those expectations are so high and that this case has occasioned the justified reaction that it has is a reflection of the high standards that our prosecutors routinely meet, day in and day out, in courts across the country.

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

I, too, thank the Lord Advocate for early sight of his statement. This was a serious failure of the system of prosecution, and public confidence in our justice system is vital. Can the Lord Advocate outline what further steps will be taken to reassure a public that might reasonably think, “Wow! If this can happen in such a high-profile case, with all that publicity, what chance do I have against the system?”

The Lord Advocate

The first reason why the public should have reassurance is the point that I made a moment ago to Liam McArthur, that routinely—day in and day out—our prosecution system operates effectively, robustly and fairly, and it is understood and seen by the public to do so. Prosecutors take decisions that, if taken to court, are tested in the independent court and by the examination and cross-examination skill of those who represent accused persons. So, not only are there protections and reassurances to be taken from the well-justified recognition of the integrity and skill of our public prosecutors, but the public can also have confidence because of the reputation, integrity and skill of the defence bar in testing prosecutions that are brought—and, ultimately, because of our court system, in which any case that is brought to court is tried fairly and independently.

James Dornan (Glasgow Cathcart) (SNP)

Having previously been a precognition officer, I am surprised to see that the lack of precognition appears to have been a major failing in this case. Further to your statement, Lord Advocate, can you give some detail to help provide reassurance that the Crown is, indeed, equipped to deal with complex financial crime going forward?

The Lord Advocate

Yes, indeed. The Crown successfully prosecutes thousands of cases every year, including complex financial crime cases. For example, an accused was prosecuted last year in respect of a £12 million Ponzi scheme fraud involving 140 complainers and laundering the proceeds of the crime. He was convicted and imprisoned for 14 years. Serious financial crime cases are dealt with in accordance with the arrangements that I have described for large and complex cases. Those new arrangements, which were put in place in 2018, should give reassurance that such cases will be effectively and properly investigated and prosecuted. In the course of this Parliament, the budget allocation to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal service has increased by some 42 per cent. Although that was to deal with a range of pressures on the system, part of that additional budgetary resource has gone to ensure that the new system for the management of large and complex cases can be operated as it is intended to be.

What happened was completely indefensible, Lord Advocate. I therefore have a simple question, to which I want an answer: was it incompetence or was it corruption?

The Lord Advocate

I have said what I can say about the circumstances. There were significant departures from the normal practices that routinely provide safeguards against what happened in this case. I have made it clear that the admission of liability in this case was not predicated on any individual having subjective malice.

I should also say that the investigation that was carried out into the prosecutorial work on the case did not report any criminal conduct to me. Had it done so, I would have taken action. However, should criminal allegations come forward, that does not preclude their being considered and, if appropriate, investigated. I am putting in place arrangements, including the instruction of external senior counsel, so that such a process can happen if that is required.

Alex Neil (Airdrie and Shotts) (SNP)

Do the former Lord Advocate, Frank Mulholland, Police Scotland and the team of prosecutors who worked on the case agree with the current Lord Advocate’s decision to pay out millions of pounds of public money on the basis that the prosecution was malicious? Is the Lord Advocate’s decision making in this case up to scratch and robust?

The Lord Advocate

I have had to take the decision on the civil action that was brought against me. I took that decision following the conclusion of a substantial, lengthy and carefully considered investigation that was undertaken by the legal team, including a team of external counsel instructed on my behalf. That decision fell to me to take, and it is one for which I stand here and account to the Parliament.

Can the Lord Advocate provide reassurance to victims and witnesses that arrangements have been made so that the settlements that are made will not affect the service that the Crown Office provides?

The Lord Advocate

Yes. A moment ago, I reminded members that the Cabinet Secretary for Finance told Parliament last week that arrangements had been made so that the meeting of the settlements would not have an impact on the resource budget of the Crown Office. Indeed, the budget allocation to the Crown Office this year is significantly larger than it was last year. As ever, that, in part, reflects the commitment of the service to supporting victims and witnesses.

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

The Lord Advocate admits to a malicious prosecution but says that no one showed malice. That takes political doublespeak to a whole new level. Can the Lord Advocate answer these clear questions? Who is responsible for this expensive fiasco? Who is accountable? Where is the money coming from to pay for it? Those are clear questions. Can I have clear answers, please?

The Lord Advocate

Yes. I proceeded in addressing the case on the basis of the relevant legal tests. As I explained in my statement, the legal test for malicious prosecution—I appreciate that the wrong has that description—can, in certain circumstances, be met even though no individual had malice in the popular sense of the word. That is the basis on which I accepted liability in this case.

In terms of our responsibility, ultimately, in our constitutional arrangements, it is for the Lord Advocate, as head of the systems of criminal prosecution and the investigation of deaths, to answer for the conduct of criminal prosecutions, whether in court—as I do every day in relation to the prosecutions that are brought in my name—or here, in Parliament, as I am doing today. As the current Lord Advocate, it is my constitutional responsibility to answer to the Parliament for what happened at that time.

I have said what I can say today about the circumstances, given other pending processes. When it is free to do so, the Crown Office will disclose further information.

The Lord Advocate has already given quite a lot of detail, but I ask him to outline what additional steps he will take to support public accountability for and understanding of such cases.

The Lord Advocate

As I have said, as and when the Crown is free to do so, it will disclose further information about what happened in this case. In particular, it will disclose the basis for the admission of liability. I and the Crown will support a process of inquiry once all related matters have been dealt with.

We have a very brief final question from Graham Simpson.

Will there be a fully independent, judge-led public inquiry?

The Lord Advocate

We will debate a motion in the name of Murdo Fraser on that subject tomorrow. In my statement, I have made it very clear that I and the Crown will support a process of inquiry when all other related matters have been concluded. The ultimate form of such an inquiry will be a matter for determination at the appropriate time.