Tag Archives: crofting lawyers

New SCF Chair

Russell Smith - Chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation

Russell Smith – Chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation

With recent news of crofting commissioner appointments and a new CEO at the Crofting Commission it should also be noted that just before Christmas a new chair was appointed to the Scottish Crofting Federation (SCF).

At their board and council meeting on 16 December 2016, the SCF said thanks to the out-going chair, Fiona Mandeville, who stepped down on completion of her two year tenure. Fiona handed the role to Russell Smith, a crofter from Bonar Bridge in Sutherland.

Mr Smith commented:-

The Federation has achieved a great deal in the past two years, not least the pledges made by the SNP in their manifesto and confirmed recently by the Cabinet Secretary for crofting, Fergus Ewing MSP. The pledges mirror the ‘Five Actions for Crofting’ published by the SCF just before the election.

We have brought crofting very much back on to the Scottish Government agenda with the promise from them to modernise crofting law and make it more transparent, understandable and workable in practice. This will be no mean feat but the law needs to be made to work for crofters not for lawyers. We have won a substantial improvement in the Croft House Grant Scheme and await the government’s action to re-introduce the Croft House Loan Scheme.

Scottish Government will also explore mechanisms to make more publicly owned land available to new entrants, a long running campaign of the SCF, and have promised to introduce a new entrant’s scheme for crofting and to explore the creation of new woodland crofts. At last the National Development Plan for Crofting we asked for is closer to becoming a reality.

So, yes, we have achieved a lot, but there is still much to do. With the prospect of leaving the European Union, one of the few certainties is that support to agriculture and particularly to crofting will have to be fought for. Being the only organisation solely dedicated to representing crofters means that SCF will have to fight hard to avoid being marginalised by big farmers in other parts of the country. Crofters need to stand together under one banner so that our voices can be heard.

Crofting Federation call on the Commission’s Convener to be ousted

Scottish Crofting Federation call on Crofting Commission Convener Colin Kennedy to be oustedOn the back of assertions by Colin Kennedy in the press and on TV that he has no intention of resigning as Convener of the Crofting Commission the Scottish Crofting Federation has called on the Cabinet Secretary for crofting, Fergus Ewing, to oust him. First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, hinted at their ability to do so at last week’s First Minister’s Question Time. The BBC suggested if he didn’t jump he would be pushed.

Fiona Mandeville, Chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation, said:-

This dreadful humiliation of crofting regulation and complete waste of public money has got to stop.

In his latest statements to the media, Mr Kennedy has said that he intends to stay in place as Convener of the Crofting Commission. He still refutes any wrong doing and claims to have operated within the law, despite the fact that lawyers and the Cabinet Secretary for crofting, who is himself from a legal background, have said he is wrong. That is some arrogance.

To top this Mr Kennedy said on the BBC that he had no knowledge of the fact that his fellow Commissioners have no confidence in him. He must be the only person in Scotland who hasn’t heard that last week the Commissioners unanimously agreed that Mr Kennedy should stand down, following his petulant abandonment of their board meeting. This joins the widespread calls from the Scottish Crofting Federation, crofters and politicians for Mr Kennedy to go. He’s now a laughing stock if it weren’t so serious a situation. He is a lonely figure with his head stuck firmly in the sand.

How much is this whole affair costing the public purse? The resources being used trying to clean up after Mr Kennedy’s bungling must be astronomical. We have the existential crisis of Brexit staring us in the face and the fundamental weaknesses in the whole regulatory framework, yet a phenomenal amount of everyone’s time and energy is being expended on this one deluded despot.

The Cabinet Secretary must end this farce and restore some normality in crofting by demanding Mr Kennedy’s resignation forthwith. It is within his power to do so. Mr Ewing has the support of the Crofting Commissioners, the public, MSPs and the First Minister. If it just takes all the parties to formally give their support, we urge them to make this clear. Crofting is too important to the Highlands and Islands to let this man run rough-shod over the lives of decent people any longer.

Image Credit: Lord Sugar says “You’re fired” on The Apprentice © BBC

The T-1000 Grazings ‘Constable’

T-1000 Grazings 'Constable'

No… No.

Like the T-1000 in the Terminator series Colin Souter keeps coming back for more.

I previously blogged about the exchange of views between myself and Mr Souter published at Scottish Legal News. Whilst the original topic had been Crofting VATgate, Mr Souter had turned this into an attack against me providing legal advice to Upper Coll Common Grazings (before the former committee were removed from office by the Crofting Commission).

I responded to those attacks although I had already done so elsewhere with my previous comments simply being ignored by Mr Souter as though they were never written.

Once more that is the approach adopted by Mr Souter in his latest (and last) letter published by Scottish Legal News yesterday. “Last letter” in that Scottish Legal News have not surprisingly now closed debate between me and Mr Souter through their pages.

Whist Scottish Legal News have understandably brought the debate to an end through their own pages I will continue it here as there is a need to correct the misleading statements, once more, made by Mr Souter. I will, as I have done before, quote sections of Mr Souter’s letter (in italics) with my analysis following each section:-

I note Mr Inkster has shared another article published on Scottish Legal News. I have no intention of inflicting this debate upon your readers as a series of articles but will merely address what I believe to be THE crucial point, missed from all of his recent writings.

The Common Grazings is about ALL the shareholders and NOT the Committee. When a Committee takes it upon itself to make decisions, other than those relating to the maintenance of the Common Grazings, without reference to shareholders, it loses its mandate…..and its credibility. I have never disputed the rights of any individual to seek professional legal advice, nor would I do so. The point which I hope will not escape readers attention is that the Committee, in accessing and spending money which belongs to ALL shareholders, has exceeded their authority, if it does not first seek shareholder approval for that spend. And that is the case, as shown in the Minute Book.

The former committee have always maintained that their meetings were open to all shareholders and decisions were not taken in isolation. They were recently reported as stating:-

“The constable seems unable to understand that in the spirit of openness and transparency over the years in Upper Coll, all meetings were advertised and open to all shareholders, that all decisions were taken by the majority of those attending and that all these decisions were minuted.”

I imagine that the former committee would normally have had meetings with much more than 4 shareholders in attendance (that being the number of shareholders out of a total of 42 that Mr Souter proceeded to conduct business with on Tuesday night).

Mr Souter has taken many decisions on his own account without any recourse to shareholders: obtaining the Opinion of a QC on VAT matters via the Crofting Commission; writing to HMRC querying the right of common grazings (anywhere it would seem and not just Upper Coll) to be VAT registered; writing to numerous parties including myself concerning various spurious matters with insinuations and threats; meeting with Western Isles Council over matters decided by shareholders 8 years or more ago; seeking to involve the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service in undisclosed matters.

In all the accusations about shareholders not being consulted over matters has Mr Souter ever thought to actually ask shareholders whether or not they approved decisions previously made?

If any didn’t (I doubt if there would be many decisions, if any, that would fall into that category) then that would be a matter for any such aggrieved individual shareholder to pursue (if excluded illegally from a decision making process that should have legally included them).

This is not something that Mr Souter can pursue in any way on their behalf. He is deluded in the extreme if he thinks he has such power even were his appointment a legal one.

As a continuing course of conduct, failing to consult and seek approval from the wider body of shareholders serves only to undermine the relationship between the Committee and the shareholders. The resulting friction and rift that has opened up over time, can be traced back to an evident lack of willingness on the part of the Committee to consult, seek and record shareholders views to support Committee activity. My conclusion follows a simple analysis of the records of the Grazings, including the Minutes of meetings of both the Committee and of ordinary shareholders. Doubtless, Mr Inkster will challenge the validity of my conclusions. I can only say, on a factual point, that I am better positioned to comment by virtue of possessing the historical Minute Book, which is the place where you would reasonably expect such detail to be entered. Even disregarding the official Minute Book (and why would you?), there is the evidence offered by shareholders themselves at more recent shareholder meetings, confirming my own conclusion.

Again Mr Souter’s conclusions “follows a simple analysis of records” and not what the shareholders say the position actually was. His reference to “the evidence offered by shareholders themselves at more recent shareholder meetings, confirming” his “own conclusion” can immediately be dismissed on the basis that this is what 4 out of 42 shareholders may have told him. I understand that those 4 shareholders did not often attend shareholders meetings although it was of course open to them to do so.

The irony is that Mr Souter keeps saying that all shareholders should be consulted yet he is holding meetings with just 4 shareholders and making decisions that affect all shareholders (sometimes without any meetings at all) when he knows that at least 26 out of 42 shareholders (i.e. a clear majority) do not support him or his actions.

All parties involved have a duty to act responsibly and engage positively to help move towards a point of resolution. The most recent meeting of shareholders on 13 September saw fit to vote and unanimously support my activity in office to date, and a series of continuing actions outlined by me, to the meeting, as just one of a number of votes that took place. Many present stated this was the first opportunity they had had in recent years to vote on matters and hoped it was a sign of things to come. Shareholders also voted on a new set of Grazings Regulations, consulted upon over the last three months and once endorsed by the Crofting Commission will, I believe, go some way to improving the framework under which the grazings operates.

Again Mr Souter omits the all important numbers and actual facts as though they do not exist. The unanimous support he refers to amounts to possibly only 4 out of 42 shareholders. Mr Souter was presented with a petition by 26 out of 42 shareholders which reads:-

“I support the election of a new Grazings Committee to run the affairs of Upper Coll Township. I also request the removal of the illegally imposed Grazings Constable with immediate effect.”

The “many present” is possibly a maximum of 4. Their “first opportunity” may possibly be because it is the first time they have chosen to attend a shareholders meeting.

Mr Souter was critical of me before for not divulging numbers of attendees at a meting called by shareholders when I didn’t actually know the numbers. In that case he claimed “9 out of 42 shareholders was never a majority“. He knows the numbers in this instance and so perhaps it is he who is now painting “a rather disingenuous picture“? Especially when 4 out of 42 is certainly nowhere near a majority. But 26 out of 42 is.

Mr Souter was also of the view that those who didn’t attend meetings called by the shareholders were “voting with their feet“. On 13 September there were 11 shareholders who actually walked out on his meeting. That is voting with your feet if ever you saw it. If you follow Mr Souter’s view on shareholders meetings and actual support then 38 out of 42 shareholders voted with their feet on 13 September against Mr Souter. He must therefore accept, by his own reasoning, that he has no mandate at Upper Coll.

It is a matter for regret that Mr Inkster has failed to correspond with me, to answer my query and to confirm the existence (and provide a copy) of his letter of engagement, for review by Upper Coll shareholders. His claim that I am “illegally appointed” has been rejected by the Crofting Commission in their letter to shareholders of 8 September. It is simply his opinion on the matter but I nevertheless defend his right to hold that opinion.

Mr Souter yet again completely ignores the fact that I have in fact responded to his letters by way of a seven page letter copied to him but directed to his ultimate employer, the Scottish Government. After all Mr Souter does declare on his LinkedIn page that he is “engaged to support Scottish Government NDPB Crofting Commission, in investigative and reporting activity“.

If I take issue with his behaviour in correspondence issued by him to me, as I do, then I am well within my rights to take that behaviour up with his employers, as I have done. That is certainly not a failure to correspond.

I clearly cannot provide someone who has not instructed me with information provided to someone who did! The Law Society of Scotland would have something to say about any solicitor being persuaded to unethically do so.

My opinion that Mr Souter has been illegally appointed is shared by others and indeed rather ironically reflects the policy adopted by the Crofting Commission but mysteriously departed from by them, contrary to legal advice presumably received by them, on at least three occasions.

Any challenge on the question of the legality of the appointment of grazings ‘constables’ to the Crofting Commission has been met by a simple assertion that as it was a “final decision” of the Commission it is one that cannot be revisited by them. Even although they are unable to show where in law it is stated that they cannot revisit decisions and this is something they have been seen to do on other occasions!

Thus, in effect, the Commission are saying that they may well have made an illegal decision but they have no power to reverse or change such an illegal decision!

Should he wish to press the matter further, then he is clearly aware of the legal process to follow.

Indeed I am, which is more than the Crofting Commission appear to be aware of.

The continual misrepresentation of the situation in the press by disaffected former Committee members and the media profile enjoyed along with their followers, is a matter of ongoing disappointment. For my own part, I will continue to invite all shareholders to participate at official meetings and contribute positively to the future of their Common Grazings.

From the other side of the fence the misrepresentation is clearly on the part of Mr Souter and the Crofting Commission. A reading of this latest letter from Mr Souter alone taken together with my responses thereto is evidence enough of that.

Given the nature of the ongoing dispute, this article does not reflect the views of all Upper Coll shareholders.

Indeed. It may possibly reflect the views of 4 out of 42 of them.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: T-1000 in Terminator: Judgment Day © Carolco Pictures; Pacific Western Productions; Lightstorm Entertainment; Le Studio Canal+ S.A.


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

The Scottish Farmer adds balance to the tales of the Upper Coll ‘Constable’

the-scottish-farmer-logoLast week I commented on how the letter from Colin Souter, the Grazings ‘Constable’ at Upper Coll, to shareholders was no ‘gamechanger’.

This week The Scottish Farmer has redressed the balance by publishing the views of the majority of shareholders at Upper Coll which counter the allegations made by Colin Souter against them.

They also published a letter from me on the topic which they asked me to edit down in size prior to publication. I will reproduce here the longer version that I originally supplied them with:-

Sir – I was somewhat bemused by the headline in last week’s Scottish Farmer. The letter from Colin Souter, the grazings ‘constable’ appointed by the Crofting Commission, to shareholders at Upper Coll Common Grazings is certainly no ‘gamechanger’.

Had your reporter sought to verify this sensationalist piece of propaganda via the former committee members at Upper Coll or myself he would have received a very different take on it.

Firstly, it should be made clear that many consider Mr Souter’s appointment as a grazings constable to be illegal. Donald Rennie explained clearly and in detail why in a letter published by you some weeks ago. It subsequently transpired that a report produced to the board of the Crofting Commission by their Chief Executive, Catriona Maclean, made it clear that grazings constables could not be legally appointed where a grazings committee is removed from office by the Commission. It would therefore appear that the board of the Crofting Commission acted contrary to legal advice given to them and appointed a ‘constable’ who has no standing in law.

Also, even if Colin Souter had been appointed legally as a grazings constable that role is not (despite the name) in law an investigative one but one that simply takes on the duties of day to day management of the common grazings on behalf of and in the interests of the shareholders.

Colin Souter, a retired police chief inspector, seems to be under the misapprehension that he has been brought out of retirement to utilise his police skills. He even states on his LinkedIn profile that he is “engaged to support Scottish Government NDPB Crofting Commission, in investigative and reporting activity”. He has no remit of the kind and if he has actually been given such a remit then serious questions should be asked regarding the conduct of the Crofting Commission over and above the fact that, in the first place, they knowingly appointed him when they knew that legally they couldn’t.

It appears that the Crofting Commission are on a fishing expedition. They removed from office the former committee at Upper Coll purely on the basis that they had produced 5 years of financial statements prepared by an accountant rather than 5 years of “audited” accounts as unfairly and unjustifiably demanded by the Commission. This was met by overwhelming incredulity on the part of onlookers. Now the Commission are seeking to justify their actions on other grounds. They have sent in a former police inspector to find something, anything, to make everything alright again for them.

Colin Souter appears to have carried out the bidding of his masters. He has trawled through records of the Upper Coll Common Grazings going back to 2008 if not before looking for misdemeanours. This is well out with the 5 year ‘audit’ period the Crofting Commission initially concerned itself with.

Colin Souter has compiled a list but that list is of no significance. Some of it is petty in the extreme such as highlighting one typographical error on the part of the accountants instructed by the former committee in the financial statements that the Commission had not even been willing to look at. He has claimed that monies were contributed to upgrading a road in 2008 when this is denied by shareholders and even if it were true so what? He decries the spending of £520 on feu design work to allow crofting families in the township to remain in the township by allocating to them house sites on land that was not much use for grazing purposes. Any costs associated with that would be more than recouped when house sites were sold and compensation on resumption received. He does not understand that.

What Colin Souter also does not appear to understand is that a new grazings committee is elected every three years. Most of his accusations relate to the activities of the committee of 2008/09. There have been a further three committees elected since then. Even if what the grazings committee of 2008/09 did was wrong (and there is no evidence to suggest that it was) it does not justify the Crofting Commission removing from office a committee only elected in 2015.

Colin Souter claims there is nothing in the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 that permits shareholders funds to be used to pay solicitors. What nonsense. 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. Try the Magna Carta for starters.

It is also of course rather ironic that a grazing ‘constable’ whose legality has been questioned from the outset is stating left, right and centre what he considers the law to be and how he considers former committees to have breached it. Presumably in circumstances where he has not actually sought legal advice on such pronouncements because he doesn’t consider expenditure on legal advice by a grazings committee to be legal!

The situation with the grazings ‘constable’ at Upper Coll has become farcical. I will be expressing my concerns to Fergus Ewing MSP, as cabinet secretary responsible for crofting, about this illegal ‘constable’ being allowed to wreak havoc by the Crofting Commission. Mr Ewing has already had to rein in Convener Colin Kennedy. Now it is time for him to rein in another Colin.

Brian Inkster

The Crofting Bat Phone

The Crofting Bat Phone

Commissioner Gordon and Batman didn’t have a look in to the lines of communication available between the Crofting Commissioner(s) and their Grazings Constable!

There have been quite a few comments of late about the difficulties of getting a statement from the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy. He is elusive to say the least and seldom represents the views of the Board to the general public despite this being one of his “particular responsibilities” .

Other Commissioners have been thin on the ground of late as well with no Commissioner replacing the Convener when he failed to attend the Scottish Government Crofting Stakeholder Forum in Inverness on Tuesday. This left the Chief Executive, Catriona Maclean, representing the views of the Commission in front of BBC Alba after the meeting.

Getting clear and unambiguous information out of Commissioners when you can pin them down is also often a challenge.

One person who seems to have direct access without difficulty to Commissioners (which might include, or indeed mean, the Convener) is the Grazings ‘Constable’ of Upper Coll, Colin Souter. He certainly appears to be in possession of information that only Commissioners would have and that well in advance of such information being made available to anyone else outside of Great Glen House.

One example of that became clear at the meeting of the Scottish Government Crofting Stakeholder Forum in Inverness on Tuesday.

I had been aware from the published Agenda that the Board of the Commission had considered a paper at their meeting on 17th August on ‘Grazings Committees – A Practical Approach to the Management of Common Grazings’. There was no mention of that at the Stakeholder Forum so I enquired about it.

I was advised that the Crofting Commission was setting up a Stakeholders’ Working Group to advise on the revision of common grazings regulations and guidance. This paper from 17th August would be considered by that group at a meeting on 20th September. Only after that meeting would the paper in question (possibly after refinement? – but that was not made clear) be circulated to the wider Stakeholder Forum.

So at the moment members of the Stakeholder Forum had no knowledge of or access to what the paper in question said. A stark contrast to the access to that paper apparently afforded to Grazings ‘Constable’ Colin Souter.

In the letter issued by Colin Souter to Shareholders of the Upper Coll Common Grazings on 29th August he states:-

The Board of Commissioners at a recent meeting, considered a submission along the lines I set out at the July meeting, whereby Committees can operate within a defined financial framework which allows retention of funds (from any legitimate source) in the bank, up to a maximum agreed by shareholders, taking account of any commitments under Schemes and projects ongoing and an Emergency Reserve (set at perhaps 3-4 times the 3-year average annual maintenance costs) and exceeding that amount automatically triggers payment to shareholders, three or four times a year. In doing so, the administrative burden is minimised for the Committee and they are seen to be operating within an agreed and better regulated financial framework. Whilst the Commission has a clear role, as regulator, in ensuring feu monies are distributed to shareholders, I understand it does not otherwise seek any direct involvement in other areas of finance affecting shareholders. The proposal tabled is seen as an initiative worthy of testing, for the benefit of Upper Coll and the wider crofting community but it is a choice for shareholders to make.

So even before the Commission has had the first meeting of its new Stakeholders’ Working Group, to advise on the revision of common grazings regulations and guidance, Colin Souter is seeking to impose the guidance so far produced (that no one other than Commissioners, Commission Officials and Colin Souter have seen) upon one particular Common Grazings, namely Upper Coll.

The same is true about his access to an Opinion from Queen’s Counsel which it is presumed was instructed by the Crofting Commission. In his said letter to shareholders at Upper Coll he said:-

Following receipt of legal opinion from Queen’s Counsel, the position of Grazings Committees being able to register for VAT as trading entities in order to reclaim VAT has come under scrutiny. The dialogue with HMRC regarding VAT status remains ongoing and once concluded, I will be able to advise on the outcome.

When I asked about this opinion at the Crofting Stakeholder Forum there was “no comment” from the Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission on behalf of the Board.

It is highly unusual for the Crofting Commission to publish legal advice received by them in any event.

On the topic of legal advice: Colin Souter seems very ready to challenge what he considers to be illegal activities at Upper Coll. It would be very unusual for a clerk in a common grazings (that is effectively what Colin Souter is had he been legally appointed) to appear so sure about crofting law without having sought legal advice. Not that I would give much weight to any advice that Colin Souter is getting given, in my view, a clear misunderstanding on his part as to what the law actually is.

We know that he thinks that legal advice cannot be paid for from grazings funds. So where is he getting his crofting law advice from? Is it likewise coming from Commission officials and/or from Commissioners and/or from a Commissioner? An organisation with a Board that has been shown to ignore the law and lawyers.

Why and how did one grazings clerk (i.e. Colin Souter) get privileged access to all of this information before any other grazings clerk in the land and before the members of the Crofting Stakeholder Forum? In the case of the opinion from Queen’s Counsel this may never be divulged to any other grazings clerks or to any members of the Crofting Stakeholder Forum.

The only explanation can be direct and special contact between him and a Commissioner and/or Commissioners and/or officials within the Crofting Commission.

So much for the assertion that he is acting at arms length and independent from the Commission.

It also again highlights the fact that he is under the control of and acting at the behest of the Crofting Commission. A reader of this blog having referred to him as a “maor” (or ground officer).

Serious questions must be asked by the Scottish Government about this arrangement and, in the circumstances, the validity of any pronouncements by the Crofting Commission and/or their ‘Constable’ over the situation at Upper Coll.

The Crofting Commission will no doubt say that the Scottish Government cannot investigate the situation when it is subject to on going court proceedings. Those court proceedings may touch upon the legality of the appointment of the Grazings ‘Constable’ in the first place.

But even if we take it that the appointment was legal (although that is denied) then the Scottish Government should be looking at the propriety of the relationship that exists between such a legally appointed grazings constable and the Crofting Commission.

Is it correct and proper that he has been given an investigative remit? Is it correct and proper that he is being supplied with the information that he has been? If it is not then who gave that remit and/or supplied that information?

If that was a Commissioner are they therefore, in all the circumstances, “unable or unfit to exercise the functions of a member” or “unsuitable to continue as a member”? As such should the Scottish Ministers remove them from office under and in terms of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993?

Even worse if it were to transpire that it was the Convener who was embroiled in all of this. After all he has, for some time, been the subject of complaints about his handling of the affair at Upper Coll and so should not be involving himself in matters concerning Upper Coll until the relevant complaints process has been completed. To do so would be a clear conflict of interest. But there again that has not stopped him before.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: The Bat Phone from Batman (TV Series) © Greenway Productions / 20th Century Fox Television

Time for Kennedy to go

The Scottish Crofting Federation has called for the resignation of the convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, following the exposure of the Commission having taken action on grazing committees against legal advice.

It is clearly time for Kennedy to go”, said the Chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation, Fiona Mandeville. She continued:-

We’ve asked many times for an explanation but to no avail. Documents obtained through Freedom of Information are unequivocal; the board of the Crofting Commission, headed by Colin Kennedy, chose to ignore policy and legal advice and proceeded to impose, what lawyers are saying are illegal, constables upon grazing shareholders whose committees the Commission had removed from office. So much anguish has been caused by this whole debacle and now, as suspected, we can clearly see that Kennedy led the Commission down this destructive route.

The commissioners have behaved as a board would be expected to in closing ranks and taking joint responsibility. But it would do no good for crofting were all commissioners to resign. Kennedy was closely implicated in the sackings of the committees and, as convener, is accountable. He must do the honourable thing: leave.

Fiona Mandeville concluded:-

It is time to review not only what went wrong and how to put procedures in place to prevent this sort of thing happening again, but to also look at the wider purpose of the Crofting Commission. There have been a few calls for the disbanding of the Commission, a natural reaction to the grief it has caused. But our members are still supportive of having an independent body that oversees crofting. This convener got too inflated over legislation, spouting ‘the express will of Parliament’. But with him gone we can work with the Commission again, picking up on the excellent progress made with the five priorities for crofting. It is time to consider reinstating the responsibility for crofting development with the Commission; it was supposed to have been moved to HIE, though this transition never happened. If the Crofting Commission takes crofting development back with crofting regulation we would see a more rounded, holistic body representing Scottish Government working for crofting.

Ignore the law and the lawyers

Ignore the Law and the Lawyers

Hear no crofting law, See no crofting law and Speak no crofting law

I have been blogging for some time about the Crofting Commission ignoring the law.

They have done so in relation to, amongst other things:-

They have, however, this past week made a massive U-turn which could just mean they now actually accept that they did in fact completely ignore the law.

It also, unfortunately, transpired at the meeting of the Cross Party Group on Crofting on Wednesday that they are now simply ignoring lawyers who take a different viewpoint from them and/or represent crofters challenging their stance.

When Commissioner Murdo Maclennan announced that he “thought we have a conclusion” on Mangersta and there was “no grazing constable in place at the moment“, I asked how this could be when I thought that the Commission had purported to extend the appointment of the Grazing Constable (illegally appointed in my opinion and in the opinion of others) for a further six months from and after 6 June 2016.

Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission, Catriona Maclean, interjected that:-

there is no constable at present, the case is over and the people of Mangersta will be advised.

I questioned why they had not advised the solicitor acting of this (i.e. me) and she responded:-

We have been in correspondence with the people of Mangersta and that is who we will respond to.

I pointed out that they had been in correspondence with a solicitor representing former members of the (unlawfully in my opinion) removed grazings committee and they should be responding to that solicitor.

There then appeared to be a reluctant acceptance that I might hear from them!


The Crofting Commission appear to think they can simply bury their ignorance of the law by taking a U-turn and not responding to questions raised by a solicitor concerning that ignorance of the law. The fact that they have acted contrary to the law remains and they do require to answer outstanding points in correspondence that sits unanswered on the desk of their Chief Executive.

They still need to answer, amongst other things:-

  • Where in law it is stated that the Crofting Commission cannot revisit its own decisions.
  • Where in law it is stated that the Crofting Commission has the power to appoint a Grazings Constable when they remove members of a grazing committee from office.
  • Where in law it is stated that the Crofting Commission can extend the appointment of a Grazings Constable.
  • Why the Crofting Commission is ignoring its own guidelines on the investigation of financial irregularities.

Perhaps they do now accept, given that U-turn, that nowhere in law is any of this stated and therefore they are unable to answer my questions. They should, if that is the case, at least have the dignity to say so.

I will let you know if and when the Crofting Commission deign to respond to me.

Brian Inkster

Common Grazings and the Spirit of the Law

Patrick Krause

Patrick Krause

I continue to catch up with news of ‘The Common Clearances‘ since I returned from holiday. With the amount of new news on this topic being generated daily this week that is a difficult task!

On 25 May 2016 Patrick Krause, Chief Executive of the Scottish Crofting Federation, published a piece on the Federation’s website. I now reproduce it here in its entirety with a small comment at the end from myself on the question of the will of Parliament.


The Spirit of the Law
The inexplicable case of a public body confusing legal dogma with good sense 

The Crofting Commission website says “The Crofting Commission regulates and promotes the
interests of crofting in Scotland to secure the future of crofting.” Following the summary
dismissal of two (or more) grazings committees; the foisting of grazings constables upon the
dismembered grazings; the demolition of crofters’ characters; the contradiction and confusion,
it is no wonder that crofters and those with crofting interests are standing agog and are asking
“What is going on in the Crofting Commission?” It is not for me to make any judgement on the
legalities of the fracas that has been taking place over the past month – crofting lawyers are
willingly giving opinion – but I will attempt to explain the essence. Common grazings are the
epitome of communal working, yet this is a spectacularly detrimental exercise in public
relations by the Commission that threatens the very core of crofting communities. I wonder
what the motive is.

One committee was summarily dismissed for not presenting fully audited accounts. Previously
the Commission had issued official guidance that ‘audited’ did not mean fully audited in the
legal (and expensive) sense, but could be taken to mean an independent examination – the
Commission were taking a “light-touch approach”. At the demand by the Commission for five
years annual accounts, the committee presented an independent examination of its accounts,
as is usual for small businesses and social enterprises and is perfectly acceptable to HMRC,
Companies House and the Charities Regulator. They were summarily dismissed for failing the
demand. This subsequent heavy-handed bombshell has naturally caused fear throughout
regulated grazings that they also are in breach for not having fully audited accounts.

A second committee was also summarily dismissed (both grazings then had a constable foisted
upon them by the Commission, which a leading crofting lawyer claims is not legal in these
circumstances), in this case for not distributing income from resumption. Though the only
shareholder asking for his tiny share of the resumption money was an absentee, legally he had
the right to it, we are told by the Commission.

It is hard to understand why this committee was unexpectedly sacked when it had attempted
to pay the absentee, under guidance of the Commission (and the other was also instantly
sacked even though it had seemed to have complied with all the demands of the Commission).
But let’s leave the detail and look at the principle.

The law says that money due as part value of resumption may be paid by the landlord to the
clerk of the committee for distribution by the clerk among the crofters concerned. The law is
not prescriptive in saying when or how the distribution is to take place. The Commission has
added in its regulations the word “immediate”.

For years grazings committees have managed finance in a workable, business-like fashion.
Income generated from anything, such as resumption of land, schemes for development or
through managing agri-environment schemes, is put in the bank. As in any business,
expenditure on carrying out maintenance or improvements is deducted before any profit is
disbursed to shareholders. If a grazings committee was expected to take all income and pay it
out as dividends to shareholders before deducting expenditure, only to then have to recover
from all shareholders their share of the expenditure, it would be a complete nonsense.

Hobbling grazings by making them produce fully audited accounts, when other similar
businesses or voluntary groups don’t, and making them run an unworkable cash-flow, that no
business would, could not have been the intention of the law, but this is what it seems the
Crofting Commission is trying to enforce, presumably at considerable public cost.

The Commission argue that it is only carrying out its interpretation of the law; but why now
and so destructively? If the Crofting Act is wrong (as much of it has proven to be) it could be
put in ‘The Crofting Law Sump’ for future rectification and the Commission could quietly
resolve the issues, rather than turning this into a public, highly-charged stand-off. If it is
enforced, grazings committees cannot comply so will resign (or be dismissed) and the grazings
will leave regulation – unless the Commission then imposes constables on all grazings.

The Commission clearly knows a lot more about regulation than I, and knows what the
consequences of this will be, but are keeping quiet about its objective. How does this fit with
the Crofting Commission Policy Plan in which it says “The Commission regards the shared
management and productive use of the common grazing to be essential for the sustainability
of crofting. To that end it will … work with crofting communities to promote the establishment
of effective grazing committees and will actively support established committees”?

The Convener of the Crofting Commission is implicated in the fracas perhaps more than a
convener ought to be, having had complaints raised against him for behaviour at one of the
grazings meetings and having turned up unannounced at the other. He came to ‘observe’
apparently. The chair would not allow him to participate as he had a conflict of interest, and it
was surely odd that he was allowed to stay at all, this being the case, and it being against the
wishes of crofters present.

The convener has been widely quoted as saying the Commission is to deliver “the express will
of Parliament”. He would do well to go back and look at the passage of the Bill that became the
2010 Act to see what the will of Parliament was. The will of Parliament is not necessarily the
letter of the law, or in this case, the Crofting Commission interpretation of it, if it is bringing
about the demise of regulated common grazings.

Patrick Krause (Chief Executive of the Scottish Crofting Federation)

Comment on the Will of Parliament

Patrick is correct to highlight the fact that the Commission are certainly not delivering “the express will of Parliament”. This is something I will return to in detail in a later blog post with a clear analysis of what the will of Parliament actually is on this issue. This should also, actually, help to spell out the letter of the law on the matter. It should be noted that to date the Crofting Commission has not given any explanation with reference to the law as to why they are taking the stance or actions that they are and have been taking.

Brian Inkster

Update – 20 June 2016: Crofting Commission flouts the will of Parliament

The Scottish Government knows best about Crofting Law

The Scottish Government knows best about Crofting LawAt the Stage 2 Debate on the Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill, on 12th June, Alex Fergusson MSP asked:-

Given the issues that have been raised by Sir Crispin Agnew, in particular, about some parts of the bill not matching up with others, if I can use such loose terminology, why have you not seen fit to lodge amendments to address his concerns?

Paul Wheelhouse MSP, Minister for Environment and Climate Change, responded:-

We are aware that there are a number of alternative views about the form and content of the bill, as was discussed during the stage 1 debate. We are aware of those views and respect the opinions of Sir Crispin Agnew and Derek Flyn and others, including Brian Inkster, but we believe that the bill provides the necessary clarity and legal certainty that the owner-occupier crofters and other stakeholders are looking for to allow them to decroft their land. The commission will have the power to consider such applications after the bill is enacted.

The Scottish Government considered the detailed drafting issues that were raised; I can promise the committee that we have gone over them in some detail. However, as it is drafted, the bill achieves its purpose. A number of key witnesses to the committee, such as Sir Crispin Agnew, and the Crofting Commission, through David Balharry and Derek Flyn, all agreed that the bill delivers on the purpose that the Government has set out of giving owner-occupiers the ability to decroft.

The Scottish Government is committed to drafting in as plain and accessible a manner as is consistent with achieving the necessary outcome. We all know that crofting law is horrendously complicated: that message came across loud and clear at last week’s debate, and I do not disagree with that conclusion, which was reached by many members. As I said during the stage 1 debate, the key issue is that the provisions in the bill, in its current form, are as close as we could get them to the provisions for tenant crofters. That will enable us to deliver similar treatment, which we all want. I cannot prejudge what the committee will say, but the nature of the debate so far seems to indicate that we want to give owner-occupiers provisions that are similar to those for tenant crofters where appropriate. Obviously, some aspects, especially on land tenure and right to buy, had to be modified, but we are talking about the general provisions. In order to do that, we have kept as close as possible to the original wording of the provisions for tenant crofters.

The bill has therefore taken a particular form. I appreciate that some people are concerned that it could have been simpler, but then there might have been more room for doubt that the provisions were meant to be the same as those for tenant crofters. By taking the view that we have, we have managed to minimise that possibility. I hope that that answers Mr Fergusson’s question.

Alex Fergusson responded:-

It does, and in much more detail than I was expecting; I thank you for that. I just want to clarify that my reason for raising the point was not to question the purpose of the bill or its likely outcome but to look for confirmation, which I think you have given me, that you looked at the technical drafting points that were raised by Sir Crispin Agnew, which were not really questioning the outcome of the bill but questioning whether separate parts of the bill worked together in a way that goes beyond my ken. You have told me clearly that you have looked at all that and are satisfied with the way in which the bill is drafted, and I am quite happy to accept that. It is good to have that on the record.

The position stated by Paul Wheelhouse at Stage 2 is really much the same as when he gave evidence to the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee back on 22nd May (see: length is not everything). But by now we have really moved away from the debate on length. It is clear that the Scottish Government has no intention of rewriting the Bill in more simplistic terms (that is probably too much like hard work in the short time frame available to ensure that the Bill becomes an Act).

However, many of the comments made by Sir Crispin Agnew QC, Derek Flyn, myself and others related to the detail of the Bill in its current form and small tweaks to that necessary to avoid confusion, problems and, in at least one case, to close a loophole that the Scottish Government had inadvertently opened. All of this appears to have been sidestepped. If the Scottish Government did indeed consider “the detailed drafting issues that were raised” and went “over them in some detail” would it not have been good (perhaps essential) to have seen a detailed written rebuttal of each with reasons why the Scottish Government thought the expert crofting law views on each to be of no apparent value? Without that how easy is it for MSPs to easily consider the matter given the complexity of crofting law that they are all ready to acknowledge? They simply have to accept the Minister’s word for it as Alex Fergusson did. But at least he did get it on record and that just might come back to haunt the Minister.

At the Stage 1 Debate comments were made of the fact that the Scottish Government were benefitting from free legal advice from crofting law experts and should be taking advantage of that. As Graeme Dey MSP put it:-

Sir Crispin Agnew offered helpful advice on wording, and it is not often that a learned QC offers advice gratis.

Jamie McGrigor MSP said:-

I am not a lawyer or a legal expert so, like the committee, I can only urge ministers to take on board and address the concerns that have been expressed by eminent figures such as Sir Crispin Agnew QC and Brian Inkster. Ministers should, if required, lodge amendments to the bill at stage 2 so that we do not find ourselves having to enact yet another amendment bill in a few months or years. We must try to avoid that at all costs.

This was a sentiment expressed in the debating chamber by many of the MSPs who spoke at the Stage 1 Debate. However, we are now approaching Stage 3 and the Bill remains as originally drafted by the Scottish Government and it looks likely that it will be enacted as so drafted.

20 crofting lawyers in a room together thought that amendments were required to the Bill. But clearly the Scottish Government knows best and the views of the legal practitioners who know and deal with the legislation on a regular and detailed basis is of no real concern.

Those lawyers will be the ones picking up the pieces and arguing before the Scottish Land Court, in the fullness of time, about any problems and unintended consequences that may have been created by the Scottish Government.

Jamie McGrigor also said:-

Not long ago, I attended a meeting of crofting lawyers in the Signet library, at which an eminent lawyer assured the brethren there that there would be much work for them in crofting law for the foreseeable future. I am beginning to understand why he said that.

The crofting lawyers in question have actively tried to reduce that workload by seeking to assist the Scottish Government in the drafting process. However, the Scottish Government in rejecting that assistance appears content to increase the workload those lawyers will have by adding to the complexity of crofting law. So be it for now.

However, the lawyers are not about to give up offering their help (although perhaps, some might argue, they should simply leave the Government to it). The Crofting Law Group will be at the Signet Library again on 27th September 2013 for their annual Crofting Law Conference in association with the WS Society. The theme of this year’s Conference is to be Crofting Reform. It is to be hoped that the Scottish Government will take that opportunity to engage with crofting lawyers and participate in the Conference for the benefit of both organisations and ultimately, hopefully, for the benefit of crofting tenants, owner-occupier crofters, owner-occupiers (who are not owner-occupier crofters), landlords and others affected by crofting law. I will blog more about the Conference once the programme for it has been finalised.

Brian Inkster 

[Photo Credit: 1984: Virgin Films]