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

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