Tag Archives: Scottish Land Court

Grazings Constables Risk the Clink

Frank Serpico would never have accepted a job offer from the Crofting Commission

Frank Serpico would never have accepted a job offer from the Crofting Commission!

The Crofting Commission have, as part of the alleged abuse of power on their part over ‘The Common Clearances‘, been appointing Grazings Constables to replace the grazings committees that they have evicted from office.

I have blogged on the illegality of appointing Grazings Constables in such circumstances. This viewpoint has been backed up by Donald Rennie, an eminent expert in agricultural law and Honorary President of the European Council for Rural Law.

In a letter, that was published in both The Scottish Farmer and the West Highland Free Press last week, Donald Rennie highlights the potential difficulties for both the ‘Grazings Constables’ and the Crofting Commission of these illegal appointments.

With the kind permission of Donald Rennie, I now reproduce his letter here, in its entirety:-

I cannot allow the “Open Letter” from the Chief Executive of the Crofters Commission to pass unchallenged, especially as the Commission have exposed the unfortunates imposed as “Grazings Constables” to the risk of personal liability for tampering with the crofters’ money.

Ms MacLean says that there has been speculation about the interpretation of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 and that “The commission is confident that it is applying the law correctly but this can only be clarified by the Scottish Land Court.” Both of these statements are self evidently false.

It is clear from an honest reading of section 47 of the Act that the Commission has no power to appoint a grazings constable in the present situation.

Their only power to appoint a grazings constable is to be found in section 47(3). That subsection applies where the crofters have not used the democratic provisions of the Act to appoint a grazings committee. In that case the Commission may step in and appoint either a grazings committee or a constable. That is not the situation here.

Under section 47(8), if the Commission are satisfied that the members of a grazings committee are not carrying out properly the duties imposed on them by the Act, the Commission may remove from office any or all such members and may appoint or provide for the appointment of other persons in their or his place. In other words, if the Commission remove one or more members of a committee they may appoint substitute members of the committee. They have no power conferred by this subsection to appoint a grazings constable.

The Commission was created by Act of Parliament. If the Act of Parliament does not give them the authority to do something then they cannot legally do it. subsection 8 is the only part of the legislation which permits the Commission to interfere in the democratic process of the operation of grazings committees. There is nothing in this subsection which permits the appointment of a grazings constable and therefore the actions of the Crofting Commission in purporting to appoint grazings constables are clearly illegal.

There is no point in applying to the Scottish Land Court for a ruling. It is a waste of time and money to seek a judgement to confirm the self evident.

Each purported grazings constable is in bad faith in the holding of his purported appointment. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. In addition it has been explained to the so called constables that their appointments are nullities. They cannot therefore claim ignorance of the illegality of their positions.

Section 47(7) is the only provision dealing with the constable’s right to remuneration. It provides that “The term of office of a grazings constable appointed by the Commission under subsection (3) above shall be such as may be specified in the instrument by which he is appointed, and he shall receive such annual remuneration as the Commission may determine; and such remuneration shall be defrayed by an assessment levied in such manner as the Commission may deem reasonable on the crofters who share in the common grazing.” Nothing is said in this subsection about appointment in terms of subsection 8 which reinforces the view that the appointment is illegal.

If a constable is validly appointed, this is the only provision allowing for his remuneration and it states clearly that the remuneration shall be paid by the crofters. The Commission has no power to use its own funds to remunerate the constable and if they purport to do so then it is a matter for Audit Scotland to investigate.

But these purported constables have not been appointed validly under subsection 3. Therefore there is no basis on which they are entitled to remuneration. From this it follows that if a purported constable takes as much a penny piece from the crofters sharing in the common grazing, with intent permanently to deprive them of that money, he is at serious risk.

Comment from the Crofting Law Blog:-

I wholeheartedly agree with everything Donald Rennie says in his letter. The law on the matter is simple and straightforward as set out clearly by him.

I have asked the Crofting Commission to explain where in law they have the power to appoint Grazings Constables in such circumstances. The only response to date has been:-

The Commission’s understanding is that this was a final decision and the Commission has no authority to revisit its own decisions in these circumstances.

This could imply (in the absence of any argument to the contrary) an acceptance on the part of the Commission that they couldn’t in law appoint a Grazings Constable but, having done so, they had no ability to revisit and reverse that decision. However, as Donald Rennie points out, there is no need for the Commission or anyone else to do so “to confirm the self evident”.

In my next blog post I will reveal the fact that, having stated that it has “no authority to revisit its own decisions in these circumstances“, the Crofting Commission went on to do just that and compounded their first illegal decision with yet another one (or maybe two)!

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: Serpico © Artists Entertainments Complex, Inc. Produzion De Laurentiis International Manufacturing Company S.P.A.

Pressure mounts for a full investigation of the Crofting Commission

The crofting law truth is out there

The truth is out there

On this blog on 25 April 2016 I called for the Scottish Government to review the Crofting Commission’s actions in connection with ‘The Common Clearances‘ due to an alleged abuse of power within Great Glen House.

The Scottish Crofting Federation and others have backed that call. Yesterday the Scottish Crofting Federation reiterated that call on the back of apparent historical revisionism on the part of the Crofting Commission. Statements by the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, previously published on their website have been deleted and a different version of events presented by their Chief Executive, Catriona Maclean.

The uncovering of this underhand behaviour on the part of the Crofting Commission has resulted in mounting pressure for  the Scottish Government to now actually do something about it.

Uisdean Robertson, Councillor and Chair of the Joint Crofting Committee of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council), has been quoted as saying on Radio nan Gàidheal that the Council have no confidence in the members of the Crofting Commission and their Chief Executive. He has said that Crofting Commissioners and the Chief Executive all need to think about their positions in light of what has gone on.

Brian Wilson, writing in The Scotsman, has said:-

The immediate question is whether the Scottish Government is prepared to back their quango’s interpretation of the law and its heavy-handed approach to enforcement.

In the short term, a rapid inquiry into why the Crofting Commission has got itself into this mess and how it can be helped out of it may seem a relatively attractive option.

It has been asked on Twitter who would carry out such an inquiry. It must be someone with investigative experience (with a team at their disposal to assist them) and who is truly independent with no association whatsoever with Commissioners, the Convener or the Chief Executive.

Also, in my view, the Scottish Government should directly involve the Scottish Land Court by submitting a reference to them under section 53 of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 to answer the questions in law that the Crofting Commission have been evading. Catriona Maclean, the Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission, has stated:-

The Commission is confident they are applying the law correctly but the only place this can be clarified is in the Scottish Land Court.

However, the Crofting Commission have yet to set out any legal argument with reference to statute or case law to show that they are applying the law correctly. I am strongly of the view that they are not. My detailed legal reasoning to them on this has gone unchallenged other than for them to say that once they make a decision that is final and cannot be changed by them!

If the Crofting Commission are so confident that they are applying the law correctly they should have nothing to fear by making a reference to the Scottish Land Court to confirm that. As they clearly do not wish to actually be found out to be in the wrong (the same is true of the decrofting debacle that resulted in unnecessary ‘remedial’ legislation at huge expense to the taxpayer when a Section 53 reference could easily have resolved the issue) the Scottish Government should advance that reference or insist that the Crofting Commission do so.

The truth is out there and it is in the Scottish Government’s hands to find it.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: The X-Files © Ten Thirteen Productions, 20th Television, 20th Century Fox Television

Oh yes you did!

Oh yes you did!

The whole truth and nothing but the truth?

On Monday of this week the Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission, Catriona Maclean, published an open letter. It reads:-

There has been much said recently about the Crofting Commission and its actions, in particular in relation to common grazings.  As the regulator for crofting we cannot comment on specific cases but it is clear that there have been a number of issues raised which many people have expressed concern over and the full circumstances of why action was necessary is not yet in the public domain.

I think it is important to say that the Commission is not on a campaign to review the functioning of every grazings committee.  Be assured, we do understand that most of the nearly 500 grazings committees across the crofting counties are working well, and will continue to do so, helping to safeguard this important community asset.  This situation has identified the passion and value that crofters, and those who represent them, put on common grazing land.  The Commission shares that passion and value and it is good to see its management and potential being discussed openly.

It is also important to emphasise that the Commission has never said “every grazings committee must carry out a full audit of their accounts” or that “without question all grazings committee must distribute every penny of money to all shareholders and that no money can be retained”.  This view has been advanced by others, not the Commission.

We are the regulator of crofting and we must represent the interest of all 15,388 crofters, the majority of whom share in common grazings and when they express concerns we have a duty to investigate.  In most cases these matters are resolved by mutual agreement.  Putting a committee out of office is not a step taken lightly by the Commission and only occurs rarely and after protracted discussion and investigation.

The way the Crofters (Scotland Act) 1993 (as amended) states that common grazings should be managed represents true democracy at its most local level.  It requires the committees, who are appointed by the shareholders to represent them, to discuss plans with the shareholders and to get their approval for improvements.  This ensures that shareholders share both the costs incurred and any benefit or dividend that results.  All the more reason to see grazings being managed well.

Indeed, the Commission has had support from within crofting communities for being willing to grasp the nettle and be an effective regulator, taking the position that grazings should be properly managed.

Some have expressed concern over crofters who are absent, possibly blocking improvements or failing to pay for maintenance.  I would like to assure crofters that there are remedies available within the current law.  The Landlord has the right to make an application to the Scottish Land Court to terminate the tenancy where a person is in breach of their statutory conditions as, following a much more complex process, can the Commission.  Even if that does not happen should a shareholder fail to contribute to costs the Commission can, when asked to intervene, act as arbiter and has the power to suspend and ultimately terminate a share and reallocate it to others.  This would result in shares coming into the hands of active crofters, willing to pay their dues.

People have said “why should an absentee get anything at all?”  The current Act does not differentiate between shareholders who are resident and non-resident and therefore, neither can the Commission. This is for legislators to address when next reviewing crofting legislation.  Equally there has been speculation about the interpretation of the Act.  The Commission is confident they are applying the law correctly but the only place this can be clarified is in the Scottish Land Court.

I would like to reassure committees and shareholders that we are preparing more best-practice guidance for them and, once we have discussed this guidance with our crofting partners, we will make it available to all grazings committees, shareholders and crofters.  In the meantime, Commission staff are on hand to support and provide guidance to crofters, grazings clerks and grazings committees.  More information can be found on our website (www.crofting.scotland.gov.uk).  In addition we will be running an information session on common grazings at our local crofting meetings to be held across the crofting counties later in the year.

As Chief Executive of the Commission I have a genuine interest in the crofting system.  Partly because I have been involved in its administration one way or another for over 20 years, but even more so because – as a daughter of the croft – it is in my psyche and in my heart.  I know how it benefits people and I am committed to seeing the system flourish.

What is important to both myself and Commissioners is that we work together with others to secure the future of the crofting system that we all value.  I sincerely hope that those who have either engaged in this debate or have been reading along with it, will continue to engage in a discussion about what that future will look like and make sure that decision makers hear those views.

For those who feel passionate about the Commission and how it operates – then why not take the chance to be part of it by standing for election when these take place early next year?  This would provide you with the opportunity to be at the heart of shaping the future Crofting Commission to ensure that it, and the crofting system, is the way you want it to be.

What I would highlight, in particular, from this letter is Catriona Maclean’s adamant statement that the Commission has never said “without question all grazings committee must distribute every penny of money to all shareholders and that no money can be retained”.  Oh yes they did!

The Crofting Commission have deleted from their website guidance issued by their Convener, Colin Kennedy, on 25 April 2016. That guidance included the following statement:-

As trustees any money received by the committee belongs to the shareholders and
should be distributed to them as soon as is reasonably practicable. It is NOT the
township’s or the committee’s money and as such it is the duty of the Grazings Clerk
to distribute any money received from whatever source, but in particular
resumptions, according to each individual shareholder’s share entitlement whether or
not they are active crofters.

When the Grazings Committee require monies to maintain the common Grazings
and the fixed equipment or to carry out works for improvements, the committee must
levy and recover the required monies directly from the shareholders for onward
payment to any third parties.

William Swann, who has since resigned as a Commissioner, also reiterated this same stance on behalf of the Crofting Commission when he chaired a meeting that the Crofting Commission held with the shareholders in the Mangersta Common Grazings. It was reported at the time that:-

Commissioner William Swann, who presided over the meeting, made it clear that under the Crofting Reform Act of 1993 any money that comes into the village must be distributed among all the shareholders – including absentees. Any improvement works then needing to be carried out must be financed through a levy charged on the same shareholders.

The Crofting Commission’s attempt at the eleventh hour to change their tune in this way through historical revisionism does them no credit. An apology and an admission that they got it wrong might have.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: Pinocchio © Disney

The deleted Crofting Commission post

Rebel Crofters store the data from the Crofting Commission

The Crofting Commission did not bank on the Rebel Alliance of Crofters having the technology to store and retrieve data

In the last post on this blog reference was made to the Crofting Commission deleting its history. The possible purpose for this historical revisionism will become apparent in subsequent posts on this blog. For now we reproduce, for posterity, that deleted post from 25 April 2016 (the Crofting Commission clearly not being technologically savvy enough to completely cover their tracks):-

COMMON GRAZINGS THE RIGHTS OF CROFTERS AND THE DUTIES OF
GRAZINGS COMMITTEES AND THEIR GRAZINGS CLERKS

It seems to me like a very good time to remind shareholders in Common Grazings
what their rights are and what the duties of the Grazings committee and their
Grazings clerk are. The following is a brief overview of the key points that everyone
involved should understand. Many people reading this may think that this is not what
happens in their village and may feel that it is overly bureaucratic but this is what is
contained in the Crofting Acts. If this process is not what is now required then the
only way to address it would be to ensure that any new Act reflects current
requirements. Until then the Commission have a responsibility for regulating crofting
within current legislation.

Shareholders

  • Crofters who share in a common grazing have certain rights over the land. These
    rights, or pertinents, include the grazing of stock, access to a house or pier or
    foreshore, an area for laying up a boat, the right to collect seaware, the right to cut
    peat, the right to use heather and grass for thatching. These rights, shared with
    others, are over the whole area comprising the common grazing. There are also
    certain common Grazings used as arable machairs, particularly in the Western Isles,
    where the crofters may have a right of cropping. The crofting acts state that the only
    way this can be changed is:-
  • If the landlord resumes an area of the Grazings for a reasonable purpose and
    the shareholders are compensated for their loss and obtain a share of the
    development value of the resumed land.
  • An individual gets an apportionment when his souming may be adjusted.
  • If shareholders enter into a forestry project in terms of section 50 or 50A of the
    crofting Act.
  • If the land court has agreed to a scheme for development under section 19A
    which is binding on all parties.
  • If the majority of the shareholders voting and the Grazings committee or
    constable have obtained the Commission’s consent to use part of the
    Grazings for some other purposeful use under section 50B.
  • Through Compulsory purchase by an acquiring authority with powers of
    compulsory purchase under section 37 of the Act, subject to compensation
    and share in the development value as with resumption.
  • By a reorganisation scheme.
  • Any other local Grazings arrangement is not binding on shareholders who, if they
    choose to do so retain the right to graze stock equivalent to their souming over the
    whole Grazings and the committee and clerk should ensure that any shareholder
    wishing to use the Grazings is accommodated.

Grazings Committees

The most important thing that shareholders in a common Grazings need to
understand is that the Grazings committee act as trustees of the shareholders. The
Land Court has stated that:-

..they (that is the Grazings committee) have clear duty to act as trustees of
the WHOLE shareholders in the Grazings and therefore it is their duty to act
impartially and judicially, keep in view what is their paramount consideration
– how the common Grazings can best be administered to the greatest
advantage of ALL of the tenants sharing in the Grazings….

The general responsibilities of the Committee are to:-

  • Make regulations (which require the consent of the Commission and) which
    should in the spirit of their primary duty to accommodate the requirements of
    all shareholders. Regulations cannot themselves curtail the right of any
    shareholder to graze his souming across the whole Grazings other than in the
    circumstances detailed under the paragraph entitled ‘Shareholders’ or to meet
    any specific environmental designations.
  • Hold an annual general meeting and the clerk should give the meeting an
    account of the work of the committee and of the financial position. At this
    meeting the committee should answer the questions of the shareholders
    whom they represent.
  • MAINTAIN the Grazings and any fixed equipment. That is clearly any existing
    fixed equipment such as fences. They can do this without reference to the
    shareholders and they should claim back any costs INCURRED from each of
    the shareholders whether they are actively using the Common Grazing or
    not.
  • Should the committee wish to carry out any IMPROVEMENTS to the Grazings
    they cannot do so unless they have served notice on each shareholder and
    told them how much the shareholder’s proportion of the cost will be. This
    gives the shareholder the opportunity to make representations against any
    such proposal to the Commission.

Financial management

As trustees any money received by the committee belongs to the shareholders and
should be distributed to them as soon as is reasonably practicable. It is NOT the
township’s or the committee’s money and as such it is the duty of the Grazings Clerk
to distribute any money received from whatever source, but in particular
resumptions, according to each individual shareholder’s share entitlement whether or
not they are active crofters.

When the Grazings Committee require monies to maintain the common Grazings
and the fixed equipment or to carry out works for improvements, the committee must
levy and recover the required monies directly from the shareholders for onward
payment to any third parties.

The rights of crofters have been detailed above and there is no explicit provision
in the crofting acts for the Grazings committee or clerk to be involved in the
administration or coordination of schemes falling within the provisions of
IACS regulations. So any involvement or concern regarding this should be directed
to the scheme administrators. Notwithstanding that fact, as the committee are acting
on behalf of the shareholders, any monies received and lodged in the Grazing
Committee Bank Account belongs to shareholders and must be distributed to each
shareholder in accordance with their share entitlement. It is important that all monies
are distributed to all shareholders timeously in order to assist correct financial
accounting by each individual shareholder should they require to make an annual
return to the HMRC.

There is nowhere in the Crofting Acts that allows a Grazings Committee to retain and
spend shareholders’ money on projects, village improvement works, or make gifts or
donations no matter how altruistic the purpose for which that money is to be spent.
Should townships wish to do this they should set up a separate, appropriate,
mechanism to do so and gather in any necessary funds from those willing to
participate.

Finally, I would like to say that the Crofting Commission is keen to see, wherever
possible, that crofting communities regulate themselves. It may be that shareholders
in your Common Grazings were unaware of the law and your committee has not
been being run in line with the requirements of the Crofting Act. If this is the case it
is important that shareholders and the committee hold a meeting to discuss this and
work together to ensure your Grazings Committee functions within the requirements
of the Crofting Acts.

Colin N Kennedy
Convener
Crofting Commission

Image Credit: Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope © Lucasfilm Ltd

Update: Is this why the post was deleted?: Oh yes you did!

‘A Menacing Presence’

'A Menacing Prescence'

It was not the first time that the Crofting Commission had been referred to as ‘The Dark Side’

As indicated previously I am still catching up with news of ‘The Common Clearances‘ since I returned from holiday.

One news item in the saga from last month involved a meeting called by the Crofting Commission with shareholders of the Mangersta Common Grazings (their committee having been removed from office by the Crofting Commission).

There were three press releases relating to the meeting (one with a slightly different slant on it) and that as follows:-

Statement by the Crofting Commission

The Crofting Commission met with shareholders of Mangersta common grazings today, Tuesday 17 May.  The meeting was productive and the Commission would like to thank shareholders for their positive contribution.

The Crofting Commission conducted a closed meeting to give shareholders information on the current state of their common grazings finances as determined by the Commission appointed Grazings Constable.  The meeting has also provided opportunity to seek an agreement on the best way forward to ensure that the committee’s significant level of funds is distributed to shareholders appropriately.   The Commission are committed to achieving a resolution in Mangersta and would like to encourage shareholders to continue to work with us, and hope that this leads to the appointment of a new grazings committee in the near future.

The Commission wants to encourage the good shared management of common grazings across the crofting counties and the most effective way to do this is through properly constituted grazings committees. Clear grazings regulations are the most effective way to safe guard the future common grazing land for the benefit of all crofters.

Statement by the Former Committee members and clerk to Mangersta Common Grazings

The Former Committee members and clerk to Mangersta Common Grazings have expressed “profound concern about the implications for the whole crofting system of the actions now being pursued by the Crofting Commission”.

The statement from the group – who were removed from office on the orders of the Commission – followed a meeting convened by the Commission to explain its position.

Following the meeting, attendees said:

This is no longer about Mangersta or any other specific village which the Commission has intervened in.  It is about the very existence of the crofting system on any kind of viable, community basis.

The position of the Commission is that all money coming into a village for agricultural and environmental schemes must be distributed to individual shareholders, no matter where they live or what their contribution to the crofting life of the village is.

They say that these payments should be declared for the purposes of taxation – the phrase used was that they needed to be ‘taxed and cleaned up’. Individual shareholders should then be asked to make payments back into the Grazings Committee for the purposes originally intended.

In terms of crofting, this is completely mad and unsustainable.  What Grazings Committee is going to apply for any scheme under these conditions?

When shareholders at the meeting questioned the legality of the Commissioners proposals they were told that if all shareholders did not accept them, the Commission would not allow Mangersta Grazings shareholders to reform a committee.

The statement repeated the call for an inquiry into the operations of the Crofting Commission and also asked for an urgent debate in the Scottish Parliament to seek clarification on the issues involved.

At the outset of the meeting, the chairman, William Swann, over-ruled objections to the unannounced presence of the Crofting Commission convener, Colin Kennedy, who did not participate in the discussion. Mr Swann said that Mr Kennedy has a ‘conflict of interest’ but would not ask him to leave the meeting.

Mr. Swann also refused to respond to questions about the legality of the Commission’s actions in removing the grazings clerk and committee members from office replacing them with a Grazings Constable. He said that only the Scottish Land Court could rule on that matter.  The legal advice received by the Mangersta shareholders is that there was no basis in law for the Commission’s actions.

Crofting law expert, Brian Inkster of Inksters Solicitors, who wrote to the Crofting Commission pointing out that, in his view, the appointment of a Grazings Constable in these circumstances was illegal, said:-

The Crofting Commission has not responded with any legal argument as to why they consider their actions to be legal. They have simply stated that they consider their decision to be a final one and they have no authority to revisit their own decisions in these circumstances. So they appear to consider that they can do as they please with no real regard to the law and if decisions are illegal they cannot reverse them!

This is also self evident from the appearance at the meeting unannounced, but with an acknowledged conflict of interest, of convener Colin Kennedy. It is stated in Paragraph 13(2) of Schedule 1 to the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 that ‘the convener must, if present, chair meetings of the Commission and any of their committees’. He didn’t chair this meeting, remained silent and allowed Mr. Swann to chair. Yet again the Crofting Commission simply rips up the rule book.

No public body should be allowed to behave like this and now that we have a new Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for crofting, namely Fergus Ewing, he will hopefully put a stop to it.

If Mr. Swann considers that only the Scottish Land Court can rule on the matter then the Crofting Commission should be making an application to the Land Court under Section 53 of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 for confirmation as to the legality or otherwise of their actions. Until such time as they do so, and in the absence of any legal argument to the contrary, my advice to any Grazings Committee who has been dismissed and replaced by a Grazings Constable is to treat any actions by that Constable as being null and void and carrying no legal authority.

The former committee members and clerk reiterated at the meeting that they could see no way forward until the Crofting Commission publicly admit their error and issue an apology for their actions.  The statement said:

The Crofting Commission is a statutory body which must act within the law.

This affair has opened up issues which are fundamental to the whole crofting system and there is no confidence in the Crofting Commission, left to its own devices, to act in the best interests of crofting or in accordance with their statutory remit. Urgent intervention is now required.

Statement by the Scottish Crofting Federation

The Scottish Crofting Federation (SCF) has expressed astonishment that the convener of the Crofting Commission attended the Mangersta grazings ‘closed’ meeting unannounced.

Fiona Mandeville, chair of the SCF, said

This could be seen as blatant intimidation. It is an old trick to bring someone along to a sensitive meeting who sits in the background as a menacing presence. Perhaps this was not the intention, but it was very poor diplomacy.

Following the widely reported skirmishes between two Lewis grazings and the Crofting Commission, notice recently went out to shareholders of Mangersta grazings, from the Crofting Commission, inviting them to attend a meeting to try to move towards resolution in the conflict. The letter made clear that Commissioners William Swan, Marina Dennis and David Campbell would be present. There was no mention that Commissioner Colin Kennedy, who has been at the heart of the two conflicts and was the subject of complaints about his aggressive meeting style, would be there.

Ms Mandeville continued:-

Apparently shareholders attending asked that he be removed from the meeting but the chair, William Swan, said that, although Mr Kennedy had a conflict of interest, he would be allowed to stay.

We are simply astonished. At every turn the Commission seems bent on thwarting this process and opening itself to further criticism. We were encouraged to hear of the meeting and felt the Commission was trying for reconciliation, but this latest misjudgement will add to the grave concern felt by everyone who cares about crofting’s well-being.

Conclusion

Given how the Crofting Commission handled the meeting it is hard to see how they could put such a positive spin on it. The Convener, with an acknowledged conflict of interest, should quite simply not have been there. That in itself could have made all the difference and been the start of the Crofting Commission rebuilding their shattered credibility. The opposite has been the case as subsequent events have testified.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace © Lucasfilm Ltd

The Crofting Law A-Team

The Crofting Law A-Team

Martin Minton, Angus Mackay, Brian Inkster, Evonne Morrison and Derek Flyn

Inksters recently strengthened their crofting law team by the addition of three new team members.

Derek Flyn joins Inksters as a crofting law consultant. Derek is one of the best known and most highly respected crofting law experts in Scotland. He co-wrote the first book on crofting law in 1990 and is currently writing a new up-to-date book on crofting law with Keith Graham. He was in recent years the Chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation and continues to be their Parliamentary Spokesman.

Derek, together with Keith Graham, produced the Crofting Law Sump Report which highlighted to the Scottish Government in 2014 all of the problem issues requiring to be addressed in crofting law. This is likely to lead to new crofting law legislation during the term of the new Scottish Government.

Derek lives in Beauly and has strong connections with the Isle of Skye where his wife comes from and where he once worked.

Derek will be assisting the crofting law practitioners at Inksters and providing them with specialist advice on complex crofting law matters.

Angus Mackay also joins Inksters. He is a legal consultant with a specialist interest in Community Empowerment, Land Reform and Renewable Energy.

Angus has worked for large commercial law firms and latterly for a renewable energy company. He will be dealing with general crofting and property transactions and giving specialist assistance in community acquisitions and renewable energy schemes.

Angus comes from the crofting township of Melness in Sutherland.

Evonne Morrison is joining Inksters as a Trainee Solicitor. Coming from Shetland she has an interest in crofting law and will be assisting the team in day to day crofting transactions/cases.

These three new team members join Brian Inkster and Martin Minton to provide Inksters’ clients with a formidable crofting law team of five.

Crofting Law A-Team

Derek Flyn, Angus Mackay, Evonne Morrison, Martin Minton and Brian Inkster

Brian Inkster has dealt with crofting law matters for over 25 years and appears in the Scottish Land Court regularly and is often called upon to provide opinions on complex crofting law matters.

Brian is the Hon Secretary of the Crofting Law Group, a member of the Crofting Group of Scottish Land & Estates, the Cross-Party Group on Crofting at the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Government Crofting Stakeholder Forum, the Crofting Register Stakeholder Forum and the Crofting Legislation Stakeholder Consultation Group.

Brian is a regular contributor at crofting law conferences and blogs about crofting law on this blog.

Martin Minton is a solicitor who has been with Inksters for five years concentrating on crofting law. Martin deals with crofting property transactions and disputes. He also deals with wills and executries involving crofting issues.

Martin comes from a crofting family in Dundonnell near Ullapool.

Martin has contributed articles and legal updates on crofting law for various publications and for this blog. He is the editor of the Crofting Law Group Newsletter.

Inksters’ crofting law team provide members of the Scottish Crofting Federation with a crofting law helpline.

Brian Inkster said:-

“With the current turmoil at the Crofting Commission over their handling of issues surrounding Common Grazings Committees it is essential for crofters to receive the best possible advice that they can get. I am delighted that Inksters have assembled a crofting law A-Team that will give our clients just that.”

If you need to call in the ‘Crofting Law A-Team’ then phone Rose Sullivan on 0345 450 0123 and she will direct you to a member of the team. Alternatively e-mail the crofting law A-Team or use the Contact Form on this blog to do so.

Setting the Agenda for Crofting Reform

Setting the Agenda for Crofting LawAhead of the Crofting Law Conference in Edinburgh today The Scotsman have published an article with the headline ‘Crofters to lobby for key changes to ‘complicated’ laws‘.

They quote Patrick Krause, Chief Executive of the Scottish Crofting Federation, as saying:-

Crofting law is notoriously complicated and the waters have been further muddied after the 2010 Crofting Act.

Crofting is unique in Scotland by having its own legislation and being a regulated system. It is therefore is essential that the legislation is fit for purpose.

The act needed cleaning up before the 2010 changes. This is unfinished business.

Unfortunately the 2010 introduced further errors and anomalies. The Sump gathered 126 of these and probably the only way to address them is with a new act.

Politicians are a bit reluctant to do this, but SCF is asking parliamentary candidates to finish the job.

And they also quote Brian Inkster, in his capacity as Hon Secretary of the Crofting Law Group, as saying he hopes today’s conference will set the agenda for crofting reform by the next Scottish government. Brian told The Scotsman:-

On Monday I will be spending much of the day arguing before the Scottish Land Court the significance of the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2010 having deleted the word ‘or’ in a section of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993.

The result could be an unintended consequence. This is a good example of the problems that the 2010 Act has been causing since its introduction. It was an extremely badly drafted piece of legislation on top of existing complex law.

There remain numerous problems and issues in the legislation that can trip up the unwary on a daily basis. The current government pledged to resolve matters, and the next government really must seize the bull by the horns and sort the mess out once and for all. That will involve a comprehensive new crofting act that is well drafted, easily understood and designed to resolve the existing problems and not create any new ones.

MSP Alex Fergusson has referred to recent crofting legislation being like the Hydra. You think you have solved a problem but suddenly two new ones appear. The next Scottish government simply can’t afford to let that happen again.

We will provide a full report on today’s Conference after the event.

The Year of The Crofting Law Sump

Scottish Legal News Crofting Law Review 2015As 2015 draws to a close I am reproducing here an article I wrote for the Scottish Legal News Annual Review 2015. It looks at Crofting Law in 2014. Now a whole year ago I know. I have been asked to write another such review of 2015 which I will be doing shortly. That will appear in  the Scottish Legal News Annual Review 2016.

The Crofting Law Sump was set up by the Crofting Law Group in 2013. The purpose of ‘the Sump’ was to gather together details of the significant problem areas within existing crofting legislation.

During passage through the Scottish Parliament of the Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Act 2013, MSPs were informed by practitioners who had been called to give evidence about the many problems in the existing legislation that were causing difficulties for crofters, landlords and others.

Paul Wheelhouse MSP, who was then Minister for Environment and Climate Change with responsibility for crofting, gave an undertaking that his officials would investigate, in consultation with stakeholders, what the best method might be for dealing with these outstanding issues.

The Sump was set up to assist the Government in this process. Administration was carried out by Derek Flyn, retired crofting lawyer, and Keith Graham, formerly Principal Clerk of the Scottish Land Court. 2014 saw much activity by them both collating the issues and problems that are causing difficulties, prioritising them and indicating how the problems can be resolved.

In May 2014 the Crofting Law Group held workshops in Inverness to look at the problem areas identified in the Collected Sump Report and provide feedback thereon. Following those workshops and a written consultation process the Commented Sump Report was produced. There was then feedback sought on the priority levels attributable to problem areas within that report. Further debate on the Sump took place at the Crofting Law Group Conference in Lochmaddy, North Uist in October. The Final Report of the Crofting Law Sump, highlighting 126 problem issues, was then presented to the Scottish Government on 10 December 2014.

2015 will be the year that we hopefully see what the Scottish Government plan to do to resolve all of the problem areas that have been identified.

Whilst the Sump was being contemplated the Scottish Land Court were making decisions that shaped or clarified the law. During the year Lord McGhie retired as Chairman of the Land Court and was succeeded by Sheriff Roderick John MacLeod QC who became Lord Minginish. Sheriff MacLeod had been the Deputy Chair of the Land Court since 2006.

Whilst there were a few interesting and important decisions of the Land Court in 2014 the crofting law year ended with a bang following  their decision in MacGillivray v Crofting Commission (Application RN SLC/99/13 — decision of 18 December 2014).

That case concerned the Crofting Commission’s policy on decrofting where a croft unit is held in multiple ownership.

On 14 December 2012 Crofting Commissioners agreed to adopt a policy that all decrofting and letting applications in respect of crofts with multiple owners, must be submitted by all the owners, in their capacity collectively as the ‘landlord’ of the croft, even in those cases where the application related to a part of the croft held in title by only one of their number. This decision was based on legal advice obtained by the Commission but never published by them.

For the past two years many people have been affected by this policy decision and have been unable to decroft and thus develop land they own if a neighbour who happens to own part of the original croft unit is not willing to consent to the proposed development taking place. Mr & Mrs MacGillivray were in that very position. Their application to decroft land at North Ballachulish for house building had been rejected by the Crofting Commission because it did not have the consent of the landlord of that part of the original croft unit that remained in tenancy. Mr & Mrs MacGillivray referred the matter to the Scottish Land Court who decided that the Crofting Commission were wrong and it was competent for an owner of part of a croft to seek to decroft without requiring the consent of any other owners of the original croft unit. The Land Court took the view that the reference to a croft in the Crofting Acts applied equally to part of a croft.

The Land Court’s decision will have come as a relief to many who have been affected by the Crofting Commission’s policy. However, any hopes of an early resolution to their own predicaments have been dashed by the Crofting Commission lodging a request that a special case be stated on a question of law for the opinion of the Court of Session. It is now likely to be many months before a ruling is issued that will settle the matter once and for all.

Many crofting lawyers, including myself, have long held the view that the Crofting Commission’s policy was not a correct interpretation of the law. At the outset I called on this matter to be resolved before the Land Court by the Commission or action to be taken by the Scottish Government to do so. It is a pity that one affected party (there are many) has had to take the Crofting Commission to task over this whilst others have been left in limbo for over two years.

The Land Court’s decision was a clear, sensible and fair one. Even if the Court of Session ultimately were to take a different view, affected parties will continue to lobby the Scottish Government to amend crofting legislation to allow those who own croft land to be able to apply to decroft at their own instance. It is a problem that was highlighted in the final Sump Report as a priority one for the Scottish Government to tackle. They may, of course, not have to tackle it if the Court of Session agrees with the Land Court’s interpretation of the law.

N.B. Since this article was first published the Crofting Commission withdrew their request for a special case to be stated on a question of law for the opinion of the Court of Session. Therefore, the Land Court’s decision in MacGillivray v Crofting Commission (Application RN SLC/99/13 — decision of 18 December 2014) stands. See: Crofting Commission make a U-turn on Decrofting Appeal to the benefit of many owner-occupiers.

Download the Scottish Legal News Annual Review 2015 [via Calameo].

Brian Inkster

Crofting Commissioners do the Hokey Pokey

Crofting Commissioners do the Hokey Pokey

Shake it all about

The Crofting Commission have announced the election of Colin Kennedy as their new Convener.

The secret ballot, overseen by the Crofting Commission’s Chief Executive, came following the delegation of the selection of the new Convener to Commissioners by Scotland’s Crofting Minister Dr Aileen McLeod.

Ian George Macdonald was voted in as Vice Convener, a position previously held by Colin Kennedy.

These elections follow on from a period of conflict within the Commission which resulted in the resignation of former Convener, Susan Walker, who was appointed to that position by the Scottish Government.

Back in April it was reported by The Herald that at least 5 commissioners had requisitioned a special meeting of the Crofting Commission in order to move a motion of no confidence in Susan Walker. The report claimed that there had been growing concern amongst her fellow commissioners over her style of leadership with it being alleged that she had assumed the role of an executive chair, rather than that of primus inter pares – first among equals. It was also suggested that she had been closer to officials in Edinburgh and Inverness, than to her commissioner colleagues.

What some have called a “witch-hunt” resulted in Susan Walker resigning both as Convener of the Crofting Commission and as a commissioner.

Following her departure Crofting Minister Dr Aileen McLeod said:-

“I would like to thank Susan for all of her hard work and for making such a positive contribution to crofting during her time as commissioner and convener. I have been impressed by her vision and passion for crofting and Scotland’s crofting communities, as well as her expertise and her many achievements since taking office.”

Colin Kennedy will now take up the post of Convener until 31 March 2017, covering the remaining tenure for the current Board.

Mr Kennedy said:-

“I would like to thank the Commissioners for voting me in to the role of Convener.  I am looking forward to working with the Board and staff in delivering the express will of Parliament contained in crofting legislation and effectively regulating crofting.”

It will be good to see the Crofting Commission actually “delivering the express will of Parliament contained in crofting legislation”. In recent years they have been putting their own interpretation on crofting legislation which many have argued was not how Parliament intended it. Indeed the Scottish Land Court recently ruled the Commission’s interpretation in one particular case to be wrong and clarified for the Commission what Parliament actually intended.

It is to be hoped that the Crofting Commission under Mr Kennedy’s stewardship will actually follow the express will of Parliament and no longer seek to interpret the Crofting Acts in weird and wonderful ways.

Mr Kennedy is, of course, no stranger to crofting legislation having been involved in a number of high profile personal battles in the Scottish Land Court over the years regarding crofting issues on the Isle of Coll.

Mr Kennedy originally stood for election to the board of the Crofting Commission after becoming disillusioned with its management. He said, at the time, that the eight crofters on the Isle of Coll had been treated ‘appallingly’ by the Commission, accusing the organisation of applying the legislation differently in one part of the country to another. If elected, he said he would strive to ensure Scotland’s Crofting Acts would be applied evenly across the board.

The Scottish Crofting Federation (SCF) has cautiously welcomed the election of the new Crofting Commission Convener, warning of a long way to go to restore confidence in the Commission.

SCF Vice-Chair Russell Smith said:-

“Following a long period of silence since the early departure of Susan Walker from the leadership of the Crofting Commission, we are pleased to see that something is being done to get the commission back on to a road to recovery. Electing a replacement convener will at least allow the commissioners to get on with their job.

“Crofters welcomed the fact that the new Commission had a majority of elected commissioners when it took over the regulation of crofting in 2012. So, it is even more disappointing that the fracas that led to Ms Walker’s resignation was allowed to happen.

“The fact that there have been no reasons given for the alleged vote of no confidence or that there has been no visible attempt to deal with the commissioner who breached the Code of Conduct by going to the press, leaves a bad smell. There are, understandably, questions still about how the commission operates. It is for the new convener to rectify this.

“However, we were gratified that the minister for crofting, Dr Aileen McLeod, allowed commissioners to elect their own convener this time, and we hope that this practice continues.

“There are some very experienced and competent people still on the commission and we hope that they are able to pick up the pieces. It is the intention of the SCF to continue to work closely with the commission for the furtherance of crofting.”

So it’s in, out and shake it all about at the Crofting Commission. But will they turn it around?

Should the Chairman of the Land Court be hung, drawn and quartered?

"should my friend the new chairman of the Land Court, Lord Minginish, be hung, drawn and quartered"

It would be unusual to penalise the Chairman of the Land Court!

The Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee of the Scottish Parliament were today taking evidence on the Scottish Government’s amendments to the crofting community right to buy at Stage 2 of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill.

Eilidh Ross MacLellan will be looking at the relative crofting provisions in a little more detail in a future blog post. In the meantime I will just draw your attention to a particular highlight from today’s proceedings.

It was pointed out that Section 92 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 allows the Scottish Land Court four weeks from the hearing date to give its reasons in respect of a valuation appeal. A proposed amendment will extend that period to eight weeks. Should that extended timescale not be sufficient, the Land Court is to notify all parties of the date on which it will provide a written decision.

Derek Flyn gave his view on this:-

What sanction is available to parties if the Land Court does not do as instructed in the legislation? No sanction is included. If there is no result within the eight-week period and no information about when the written statement will be produced, should my friend the new chairman of the Land Court, Lord Minginish, be hung, drawn and quartered?

A good point. Derek went on to say:-

How the Land Court goes about its business should be in its rules and regulations. If it is in the bill, nothing will be able to be done about it if it goes wrong. It will just cause a legal problem that will go into the courts and stay there.

Hopefully the Scottish Government will endeavour to avoid such legal problems.

It was decided to ask the Minister about this one.

I trust Lord Minginish will not be in jeopardy of any penalties, especially of the medieval variety, by the time the Bill becomes an Act.

Read the Official Report of the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee – 18 February 2015 [PDF]

Brian Inkster