A pivotal year for Crofting Law

Scottish Legal News Crofting Review 2014This is an article that Brian Inkster wrote for the Scottish Legal News Annual Review 2014:-

2013 was certainly a year to remember in the world of crofting law. It started in February when the Crofting Commission issued a statement concerning decrofting applications made by owner-occupier crofters who occupy their crofts.

The Commission, having taken legal advice on the question of whether or not an owner-occupier crofter can decroft part or all of their croft, stated that they believed the amendments introduced by the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2010 (“the 2010 Act”) did not make provision for an owner-occupier crofter to decroft if he is occupying his croft.

Furthermore, the Commission stated that they had been advised that they would be acting outwith their statutory authority if they approved any application made to decroft, and that no further applications would be considered until a remedy was found, with applications at that time in process being placed in abeyance.

The implications of this were significant to say the least. The Crofting Commission were not only preventing owner-occupier crofters and connected third parties from building houses or carrying out other developments but they were in effect saying that decrofting directions already granted by them may be invalid. If such directions were invalid then, if title deeds had been granted in reliance of those directions, those title deeds would be null and void. This is because applications to divide an owner-occupied croft will not have been made prior to transfer (such applications not being necessary if the land was decrofted but necessary if the land was not decrofted). Banks who had granted mortgages in reliance of such decrofting directions were also exposed.

I looked at the legislation and simply could not see the problem perceived by the Crofting Commission. I published an opinion setting out why the existing legislation clearly provided for decrofting by owner-occupier crofters. To date that opinion has not been openly challenged and the Crofting Commission refused to publish their legal opinion (so no one knows the actual reasoning behind the Commission’s decision to halt processing decrofting applications).

Faced with differing legal opinion the Scottish Government decided to introduce a Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill and rush it through Parliament with all due haste. The Bill they drafted was, in my opinion, a sledge hammer to crack a nut with the potential to introduce even more unintended consequences into crofting law. I suggested and drafted a shorter version at 621 words rather than 1,700 words. I and the other crofting lawyers who put forward submissions were ignored. The Bill was enacted as originally drafted without any amendment whatsoever during the three stages that it very quickly passed through the Scottish Parliament. The Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Act 2013 become law on 31 July 2013 when it received Royal Assent.

The Scottish Government, during the passage of the Bill, continually sidestepped another fairly significant issue that was causing difficulty for many owner-occupiers who were not classed by the 2010 Act as owner-occupier crofters. Back in February the Crofting Commission had also published a statement on decrofting by owner-occupiers who were not owner-occupier crofters. Their view, having obtained legal advice, was that if an original croft unit had been split into different parts each owned by a separate owner-occupier then no one owner-occupier could decroft part of their own land without the consent and concurrence of the neighbouring owner-occupiers. The end result is that if you fall into this category and don’t want your neighbour developing land that they own you can simply prevent them from so doing.

A Scottish Government Official said that he hoped everybody would be able to work together at some point to recognise the benefits by concurring in decrofting applications. Tavish Scott MSP pointed out that “we do not live in a perfect world”. Time has shown that we don’t with several examples arising of owner-occupiers being prevented from developing their land.

This problem could easily have been cured by a minor provision within the Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Act 2013. The Scottish Government by ignoring the issue have allowed the problem to manifest itself as time goes on. They may well be forced to consider a further Crofting Amendment Bill to fix it.

During the passage of the latest Bill it became apparent to MSPs that much was wrong with Crofting Law. Many of these problems stem from the fact that the 2010 Act was the result of a Bill that had 230 amendments all dealt with at Stage 3 in less than 3 hours.

Alex Fergusson MSP said “The whole thing seems to me to be a bit like the Hydra—you cut off one head and two others appear. With crofting, we get rid of one problem and two others appear in its place.”

Paul Wheelhouse MSP, Minister for Environment and Climate Change with responsibility for crofting, gave an undertaking that his officials would investigate, in consultation with stakeholders, what the best method might be for dealing with these outstanding issues. That consultation is now on-going.

The Crofting Law Group set up a ‘Sump’ to assist the Government in this process. It is being administered by Derek Flyn, retired crofting lawyer, and Keith Graham, formerly Principal Clerk of the Scottish Land Court. They are collating the issues and problems that are causing difficulties, prioritising them and indicating how the problem can be resolved. Their Report will be made available to the Scottish Government on completion.

From 30th November compulsory registration in the new Crofting Register, held by Registers of Scotland, was introduced for crofts if certain trigger events occur. The Crofting Register is a product of the 2010 Act and already it is being suggested that there may be unintended consequences arising from the drafting of the legislation. More fodder for the ‘Sump’!

2014 will be a pivotal year for crofting law with the publication of the ‘Sump’ Report and hopefully some indication from the Scottish Government as to what they intend doing to clear up the mess that the 2010 Act created.

Brian Inkster

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