Tag Archives: accounts

Crofters, Lawyers, VAT and a Grazings ‘Constable’

Crofters, Lawyers, VAT and a Grazings 'Constable'

Best to instruct a lawyer for legal advice and a chance of justice

I had thought my post on Crofters and Lawyers set the record straight as far as the question of crofters being entitled to engage the services of lawyers was concerned.

I also thought my post on Crofting VATgate and subsequent comments on that topic from Donald Rennie was sufficient to clarify that matter also.

But alas not for ‘Constable’ Souter. He felt it necessary to air his views once more (and ignore the points already made by me to him via this blog) in front of a large number of lawyers by submitting a letter for publication this week in Scottish Legal News. I reproduce here his letter and my response thereto:-

Grazings Constable Colin Souter responds to criticism – 12 September 2016

Colin Souter has written a response to a September 5 article by solicitor Brian Inkster. The views expressed below are not those of shareholders at Upper Coll Common Grazings or of Scottish Legal News.

As the Grazings Constable for Upper Coll, I took over under difficult circumstances, after the former Committee had been put out of office by the statutory regulator (Crofting Commission) for reasons too long to explore in this short piece. Mr Inkster had been engaged by the former Committee for legal advice, whilst they were in dispute with the Commission but apparently without the matter having been put to a wider shareholders meeting to receive the required majority/full vote. I sought to correspond with him in that capacity, having determined that the Crofting Act 1993 does not permit the use of shareholders funds by the Committee for that purpose. Activity may only be funded where it is for the “maintenance or improvement of the Common Grazing”.

I sought Mr Inkster’s co-operation in re-paying the £600 he received as payment. Mr Inkster has refused to acknowledge or respond to my correspondence but is happy to report and comment upon it, and many other related issues, to readers of his on-line blog.

Mr Inkster has presented a series of speculations, opinions and inferences in his VAT article, without demonstrating any desire to obtain a definitive outcome for those involved. I might be forgiven, I hope, for wondering why, if an expert on the subject, Mr Inkster does not already know definitively whether Committees are eligible to register for VAT and if raised as a legal point, surely it is in the interests of all parties to understand if they have somehow incurred a liability with potential for penalties? The fact of the matter, which undermines Mr Inkster’s conspiracy theory is quite simply that the former Committee included VAT in their annual Statement of Accounts presented to the Crofting Commission but set it out in a way that raised more questions than answers and whilst I am now speculating, I think it reasonable to conclude that the Commission, in responding to a review of those accounts, was left with little alternative other than to seek opinion from Senior Counsel to help address the matter. Senior Counsel, much respected in crofting circles, opined that there was no power for Grazings Committees to trade or to register for VAT under the Crofting Act 1993.

With ownership of the issue at Upper Coll and the need to resolve the matter, I brought it to HMRC and await their definitive response on the matter. If they determine the eligibility criteria have been met for registration, I will be delighted and can sign-off on one more point. If the contrary is true, then I have advocated for a “no-penalty resolution” to apply to all Grazings Committees who may be in a similar situation. The suggestion by those who align with Mr Inkster that being registered must mean they are entitled to be registered, clearly ignores the possibility that registration was made in error by those unaware of the legal status of Grazings Committees under the Crofting Act. Not a difficult scenario to envisage, I’d suggest.

I can only hope Scottish Legal News readers will appreciate my need to ensure shareholders interests at Upper Coll are properly protected and that the future framework in place for the management of the Grazings, when my short term in office expires, will be a legally compliant one. Liabilities will have been exposed for discussion and debate, and as far as possible, remedied. Given the circumstances, however, I cannot promise the remedies will satisfy everyone………least of all Mr Inkster.

Colin Souter
Grazings Constable
Upper Coll

Crofters, Lawyers and VAT – 13 September 2016

Brian Inkster addresses yesterday’s response from Colin Souter to criticism the latter had received.

Colin Souter responded yesterday via Scottish Legal News to my concerns regarding the Crofting Commission investigating the legality of VAT registration of Grazings Committees.

My views attacked the Crofting Commission on this issue and called on an investigation by Fergus Ewing MSP, as cabinet secretary responsible for crofting, into what I considered could be dubbed ‘VATgate’.

It seems rather odd that a grazings ‘constable’ purportedly appointed by the Crofting Commission to manage the affairs of one particular common grazings on the Isle of Lewis should be acting as spokesman for the Crofting Commission on the issue. That is surely the responsibility of the Convener of the Crofting Commission.

That Mr Souter saw fit, at the same time, to draw to the attention of many solicitors that he considers them not entitled to be paid for legal services provided to shareholders in a common grazings is bold indeed.

Firstly, it must be remembered that I do not consider Mr Souter to have been legally appointed. Indeed it has been shown that the Crofting Commission acted contrary to its own legal advice in making the appointment. However, having made an illegal appointment the Crofting Commission are of the view that they cannot revisit that ‘final decision’.

On the basis that I do not recognise Mr Souter as having any legal standing whatsoever I am not about to respond to his demands to repay to him fees legitimately paid to my firm by a properly constituted grazings committee following the provision of legal advice to them.

Mr Souter has threatened to raise a small claims action against my firm and I am more than happy to see him in court. He is well aware that in such circumstances the Crofting Commission will be brought in as a party and there will be a counterclaim for the time, inconvenience and costs caused to me unnecessarily by Mr Souter.

A right for crofters to instruct lawyers does not need to be contained in tablets of stone within the Crofting Acts. It is a fundamental human right. The Magna Carta would be a good starting point for Mr Souter to look at!

Shareholders in common grazings have been instructing lawyers to represent and provide them with advice in numerous matters over many years. Is Mr Souter really suggesting that all those lawyers need to repay fees received for work undertaken and advice given?

Is Mr Souter really saying that shareholders could not have a lawyer representing them in an action brought against them in the Scottish Land Court?

Does Mr Souter really think it is okay for the Crofting Commission to hire top QCs in their questionable battles against shareholders in common grazings but that those shareholders cannot be afforded access to lawyers themselves?

Has Mr Souter not read the Guidance Notes issued by the Crofting Commission on the Management and Use of Common Grazings? These Guidance Notes contain an “Important note” that reads:-

The following guidance is intended to assist grazings committees with regard to the use of grazings regulations. The guidance does not constitute legal advice, and should not be construed as such. Should a grazings committee and/or shareholder require legal advice on a matter concerning common grazings, independent legal advice should be sought from a suitably qualified solicitor.

So even the Crofting Commission acknowledge and accept that shareholders can and should seek their own independent legal advice.

Where on earth does Mr Souter get the idea from that they can’t?

I will now return to the original and more important question involved, namely VAT registration of Grazings Committees.

Mr Souter refers to me as “an expert on the subject”. I have, for the avoidance of any doubt, never been and certainly would not profess to be an expert on tax law or any matter concerning, in particular, VAT.

My concern is as an expert in crofting law advising crofters daily on that particular subject. My concern is that the Crofting Commission whose function is to regulate and promote the interests of crofting may instead be actively seeking to deprive crofters of VAT receipts.

VAT registration of Common Grazings was something that the Scottish Government insisted upon as part of entry into Woodland Grant Schemes. Did Mr Souter know that? Did the Crofting Commission advise their QC of that when seeking an opinion on the matter? Is the Scottish Government happy that Mr Souter and the Crofting Commission are challenging their policy on Crofters, Forestry and VAT?

Mr Souter says that he “can only hope Scottish Legal News readers will appreciate” his “need to ensure shareholders interests at Upper Coll are properly protected”. Is seeking to deprive them of VAT receipts protecting their interests?   As Donald Rennie, Honorary President of the European Council for Rural Law, stated on the Crofting Law Blog:-

Let us for the moment assume that Mr Souter was properly appointed a grazings constable. In that office he would be a trustee for behoof of the Upper Coll crofters as beneficiaries. As a trustee his duty would be to protect the assets and income for the beneficiaries. In the event that his blundering and unnecessary interference results in the abilty to reclaim VAT being lost he will be liable to reimburse the crofters for the losses. The measure of damages would be the total expected VAT reclaim lost from the date of his interference until VATable receipts came in.

This is in addition to any other damages claims to which his improper and negligent acts and omissions expose him.

I have written to Fergus Ewing MSP expressing my concerns about this illegal ‘constable’ being allowed to wreak havoc by the Crofting Commission. I have copied my letter to Mr Souter out of courtesy. Mr Ewing has already had to rein in Convener Colin Kennedy. Now it is time for him to rein in another Colin.

Brian Inkster

Abuse of power within the Crofting Commission?

Abuse of Power within the Crofting Commission

Is there an abuse of power within the Crofting Commission?

The publicity last week surrounding a Common Grazings Committee being summarily removed from office by the Crofting Commission highlights a worrying trend concerning alleged abuse of power within the Crofting Commission. It is not the first time that I have heard actions taken by the Crofting Commission referred to as being “dictatorial, vindictive and unjustified“.

The facts appear to be that two shareholders in the Upper Coll Common Grazings lodged complaints with the Crofting Commission to the effect that the Grazings Committee were not conducting its duties in a proper manner. This resulted in the Crofting Commission calling a meeting of shareholders on 10 November 2015 where the Crofting Commission were represented by Colin Kennedy (Convener), I. G. MacDonald (Vice-Convener) and Linda Gourlay (Staff Member).

Following that meeting formal complaints were lodged with the Crofting Commission by a number of those attending accusing the Convener of “unfair and biased conduct” while chairing the meeting. It is unclear whether the complaints procedure involved was finalised/exhausted before the Crofting Commission removed the Grazings Committee from office.

The Crofting Commission gave the Grazings Committee three months to implement five main action points and a further month to get the last five years accounts externally audited.

All points requested of the Committee were dealt with including lodging timeously accounts prepared by external accountants. However, the issue appears to be the definition of “audited”. The grazings regulations of  Upper Coll Common Grazings state that the Clerk shall arrange to have the accounts “audited” annually. In normal parlance that might mean simply having financial statements prepared by an external accountant as indeed most businesses do. A detailed and forensic audit would arguably be completely out of proportion for any Grazings Committee to be expected to carry out given the time and expense of such procedure. Furthermore, you are perhaps unlikely to find a firm of accountants in Stornoway able or willing to undertake such a  task especially in the short time frame dictated by the Crofting Commission.

It is very interesting to note that in the Crofting Commission’s own Common Grazings Regulations Guidance [PDF] it is stated:-

A grazing committee shall undertake an annual independent scrutiny of their financial accounts. The committee should satisfy themselves that the level of scrutiny is proportionate to the value of monetary transactions.

Surely that means the preparation of external financial statements and not an expensive forensic audit? Furthermore the onus is on the committee to satisfy themselves not for the Crofting Commission to dictate.

However, the Common Grazings Regulations Template [PDF] provided by the Crofting Commission does not appear to even state the need therein for such an annual independent scrutiny.

The said Guidance on Common Grazings Regulations do make reference to the question of an audit. They state:-

Historically, the term ‘audit’ has been used loosely to describe any external scrutiny of accounts, however if the term ‘audit’ is used in the Grazings Regulations, the accounts must be audited by a registered auditor.

This appears to recognise the fact that ‘audit’ can mean “any external scrutiny of accounts” but then perhaps bizarrely states that “if the term ‘audit’ is used in the Grazings Regulations, the accounts must be audited by a registered auditor”. From what authority and on what basis can the Crofting Commission make such an assertion when at the same time recognising that ‘audit’ can mean “any external scrutiny of accounts”? Furthermore, why would they seek to insist upon this for historical Grazings Regulations using this term when their preferred template does not?

It is understood that the accountants acting for Upper Coll Common Grazings Committee sought guidance from the Crofting Commission as to what they wanted with regard to audited accounts. They were apparently advised that this was a matter between them and the Grazings Committee! With no guidance given as to what was expected how could they know what to produce to pass the muster of the Crofting Commission?

The Crofting Commission should perhaps have, at least, directed the accountants to their own Guidance on Common Grazings Regulations which state:-

… an auditor is required to build up a body of evidence and express an opinion on the accounts. The opinion given in an audit depends on the nature of the accounts that have been prepared.

• If receipts and payments accounts have been prepared, the opinion will state whether or not the accounts ‘properly present’ the receipts and payments for the common grazings for the financial year.

• If fully accrued accounts have been prepared, the opinion will state whether the accounts provide a ‘true and fair view’ of the financial affairs of the common grazings.

Surely, if Financial Statements prepared by accountants were produced that did not meet whatever requirements the Crofting Commission actually had with regard to an ‘audit’ they should have sought further information/detail as necessary rather than summarily removing the Grazings Committee from office?

It should also be noted that the said Guidance on Common Grazings Regulations states:-

The Commission will not get involved in any matter relating to alleged financial impropriety. This is potentially a civil and/or criminal matter and should be dealt with by the relevant authorities.

Thus if there is any question of alleged financial impropriety (and it is not clear that there even is) then it would be for any aggrieved shareholders to take civil and/or criminal action and perhaps only on the conclusion thereof, and depending upon the outcome, for the Crofting Commission to consider the removal of some or all of the committee and/or clerk.

On any view, therefore, the actions of the Crofting Commission in this instance are extraordinary.

Patrick Krause, Chief Executive of the Scottish Crofting Federation, has stated [PDF]:-

The press made us all aware of the grievance raised by the Lewis Upper Coll grazings committee against the convener of the commission, Colin Kennedy, a few weeks ago. On the face of it, this looks like an appalling attempt by the commission to nullify the complaint. Whatever is actually behind their decision, it is a staggeringly clumsy exercise in public relations. We are struggling to maintain, and to form new, grazings committees as it is.

Hopefully, this is not the reason behind the decision to remove the Grazings Committee from office. If it is then it is very worrying indeed. Whatever the thinking involved it does however remain worrying and should be of grave concern to all crofters and to the Scottish Government that the Crofting Regulator is behaving in this way.

The Crofting Commission’s ability under the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 to remove a grazings committee involves “making such inquiry, if any, as they may deem necessary”. Not much process potentially involved there then! However, they must be “satisfied” that the members of the grazings committee “are not properly carrying out the duties imposed upon them”.

On any reading of the situation it would appear that, at least without further inquiry to satisfy themselves, the Crofting Commission in coming to the decision to remove the Upper Coll Common Grazings Committee from office arguably took a decision so unreasonable that no reasonable person acting reasonably could have made it. This is the Wednesbury test (Associated Provincial Picture Houses Ltd v Wednesbury Corporation (1948) 1 KB 223) and that decision could therefore be open for judicial review.

If this decision was a correct and proper one to make there must be countless other grazings committees in breach of their own regulations whom the Crofting Commission should also now be seeking to remove from office.

I would strongly suggest therefore that the Crofting Commission should, in all the circumstances, review this extraordinary decision. If they fail to do so the Scottish Government should maybe question the behaviour involved and perhaps even consider removing the commissioners responsible as “unsuitable to continue” as members. A power that the Scottish Ministers have at their disposal under the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993. That may be seen by many as a more reasonable and justified use of power than that employed by the Crofting Commission.

Brian Inkster