Tag Archives: lawyers

SEE YOU IN COURT?

Donald Morrison introduces the headline news item on BBC Alba An Là

The BBC reported on Wednesday that it had been revealed at a board meeting of the Crofting Commission that day in Inverness that the Convener of the Commission, Colin Kennedy, was threatening the organisation with legal action.

This is how Andrew Thomson of BBC Radio Highlands & Islands reported matters on the 5.30pm bulletin:-

It has emerged that the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, is threatening to take legal action against the organisation over the way he has been treated over the last few months.

His lawyers claim he has been defamed by the Commission.

The Crofting Commissioners get ready for the meeting and that before the heat was turned up

The Crofting Commissioners get ready for the meeting and that before the heat was turned up

The details of the case came to light at a heated meeting of the Commission in Inverness this morning.

The legal threats also specifically mention the actions of two commissioners, Murdo Maclennan and David Campbell, at a meeting in Brora in September last year.

The Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission, Bill Barron, says these two men have the full backing of the organisation.

Bill Barron will "back and totally defend" commissioners threatened by Colin Kennedy

Bill Barron will “back them totally and defend” commissioners threatened by Colin Kennedy

Bill Barron:-

Mr Kennedy has made it clear that there are things that the two of them have done that he particularly takes exception to and so they are named in this vague threat.

But having said that I don’t believe there is any reason why they need to worry unduly. They can continue to work with the board as they are doing and if there were difficult legal actions taken against them we would obviously back them totally and defend them.

As I say there is no sign of that actually getting up and running so at the moment although I appreciate their nervousness they are absolutely right to continue to work within the board.

It was also headline news on BBC Alba An Là at 8pm with Donald Morrison at the news desk and Donald Lamont reporting from Inverness:-

Donald Lamont reports from Great Glen House

Donald Lamont reports from Great Glen House

The Convener of the Crofting Commission is threatening the Commission and some of the commissioners with legal action.  Colin Kennedy maintains that the meeting in Brora last year was held against the law and Mr Kennedy’s solicitor is of the opinion that the commission has damaged his reputation.

At the last meeting, Mr Kennedy said that he was not threatening anyone with legal proceedings. However on Wednesday it came to light that a letter had actually been delivered to the Commission from his solicitor the day before that meeting took place.

Colin Kennedy enters for the meeting on Wednesday

Colin Kennedy arrives for the meeting on Wednesday

The letter wanted the Commission to change the decisions made at the previous meeting in Brora and to admit that what the Commission did was illegal, and especially that the actions of two individual commissioners were against the law.

The head of the Commission Bill Barron understands the concerns of the commissioners especially any concerns surrounding the letter.

Bill Barron:-

Mr Kennedy has made it clear that there are things that the two of them have done that he particularly takes exception to and so they are named in this vague threat.

But having said that I don’t believe there is any reason why they need to worry unduly. They can continue to work with the board as they are doing and if there were difficult legal actions taken against them we would obviously back them totally and defend them.

The newest Crofting Commissioners, Malcolm Mathieson and James Scott, share a joke before their first Board meeting

The newest Crofting Commissioners, Malcolm Mathieson and James Scott, share a joke before the tension began

There were two new commissioners present at today’s meeting. Donald Lamont asked Bill Barron was it unfortunate that their first meeting was full of tension?

Bill Barron:-

It’s part of where we are. There are those tensions within the board and until they are fully resolved that’s part of our context. I think it was not too bad for the new commissioners to join into that, Obviously I hope we will move on and resolve those things and move to more normal ways of operating.

There isn’t but three weeks until voting papers are distributed to pick a new board for the Commission.

View from the Crofting Law Blog

Since Colin Kennedy walked out of the board meeting in Brora in September there hasn’t been one board meeting of the Crofting Commission without controversy surrounding it:-

Commissioners and officials get ready for Wednesday's board meeting

Commissioners and officials get ready for Wednesday’s board meeting

It has been very clear to many for some time that the board of the Crofting Commission has not been functioning as it should. Further rationale for that became apparent on Wednesday. How can a board function when one of its members (in this case the convener no less) is threatening legal action against the organisation itself and against fellow commissioners? How can such a situation even arise? The newly appointed commissioners, Malcolm Mathieson and James Scott, must have been wondering what on earth they had let themselves in for.

Colin Kennedy

Colin Kennedy

The Convener is taking a polar opposite view from his fellow commissioners. He thinks they are wrong in what they did in Brora and they think they are correct in the actions taken by them. This is similar to the ‘diametrically opposed‘ views held by him and the Scottish Government on distribution of common grazings funds and receipt of SRDP funding.

Confidential discussions?

Confidential discussions?

The legal basis of Colin Kennedy’s purported claims of defamation and damage to reputation arising from the Brora meeting are not clear. Why he considers that meeting to be invalid in law is also unclear.

What is clear is that the Crofting Commission took legal advice and at their last meeting it was “accepted that it [the Brora meeting] was one continuous meeting in two valid parts“. It was further clarified to the Cross-Party Group on Crofting at Holyrood, by Bill Barron, that six commissioners had asked the Convener to stand down at the Brora meeting and have not recanted on that. The Convener has chosen not to.

When six commissioners out of seven take a decision that decision should be respected and stand in accordance with the doctrine of collective responsibility.

As pointed out previously on this blog the Guide for Board Members of Public Bodies in Scotland [PDF] states:-

While Board members must be ready to offer constructive challenge, they must also share collective responsibility for decisions taken by the Board as a whole. If they fundamentally disagree with the decision taken by the Board, they have the option of recording their disagreement in the minutes. However, ultimately, they must either accept and support the collective decision of the Board – or resign.

Should Colin Kennedy have packed his bags and left by now?

Should Colin Kennedy have packed his bags and left by now?

Thus by sharing in collective responsibility, as he is obliged to do, Colin Kennedy should accept and support the decision of the board taken in Brora in September. By accepting and supporting that decision he should resign.

If, however, he does not accept and support the collective decision of the Board (which appears to be the case) he must, following the guidelines for Board Members of Public Bodies in Scotland, resign.

Either way he should not therefore currently be the Convener of the Crofting Commission.

Brian Inkster

Image Credits: © BBC Alba

Gaelic credit: Thanks to Vicki Folan of Inksters for translating the BBC Alba coverage from Gaelic to English

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.

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

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!

Astounding.

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