PARLIAMENT: Lord Advocate role could be split into two

Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain KC  has two roles as the head of the Crown Office and the  Government’s top legal adviser 

Scotland’s Lord Advocate role could be split into two amid concerns about a conflict of interest in the wake of the Alex Salmond case and the police probe into SNP finances, according to a report in the Scottish Daily Express.

A consultation is due to be launched about this which was a commitment in the nationalists 2021 Holyrood election manifesto but stalled under Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership.

Currently, Dorothy Bain KC has two roles as the head of the Crown Office in Scotland and the Scottish Government’s top legal adviser. She also sits in on Cabinet meetings.

But concerns have been raised about a conflict of interest as she advises the SNP First Minister, but the Crown Office is charged with deciding to prosecute any SNP figures over the alleged fraud investigation.

In various other countries, there are two different roles, like in the Republic of Ireland there is the head of the prosecution service and the Attorney General who offers legal advice.

Alba Party Leader Alex Salmond speaks to the media 

The dual nature of the Lord Advocate’s row has come under increasing pressure due to a number of high-profile cases. The first concerned the prosecution of Alex Salmond for alleged sexual offences.

After being acquitted, he claimed at a Holyrood inquiry that the police probe was part of a political plot against him, with his allies calling for the roles to be split.

And police arrested SNP chief executive Peter Murrell last month, as well as the party’s treasurer Colin Beattie, with the Crown Office deciding whether or not to charge them.

Opposition parties welcomed the government’s decision to proceed with the consultation. Scottish Lib Dem justice spokesman Liam McArthur told the Sunday Herald: “It has been clear for some time that the role of the Lord Advocate needs to be split to end the perceived conflicts of interest.

“This has never been a reflection of the integrity of the incumbent, but rather a recognition that it is less than ideal for decisions over prosecutions to be taken by the same person responsible for giving the First Minister legal advice.

Liam McArthur
Liam McArthur, LibDem justice spokesperson

“This is as true now during the SNP finance probe as it was during the investigations into allegations of harassment by the former First Minister.

“An independent Director of Public Prosecutions to run the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service would reassure the public that there is no conflict between these two roles.”

Scottish Conservative shadow justice secretary Jamie Greene added: “This issue is more relevant than ever given the recent arrest of senior SNP figures and the ongoing police investigation into the SNP’s murky finances.

“It is hardly surprising then that a consultation on splitting the dual role of the Lord Advocate remains in the very early stages. That painfully slow lack of progress simply isn’t good enough when Nicola Sturgeon committed to looking at this two years ago.

“The scandal surrounding the SNP cannot be used as a further excuse by the new SNP justice secretary to kick the can down the road even further on this urgently needed reform.”

Murray Foote
Murray Foote, former newspaper editor

Key SNP figures have been accused of trying to get involved with the police probe into the party’s finances. Former spin doctor Murray Foote described it as a “grotesque circus” and a “wild goose chase.”

Former adviser to Ms Sturgeon Noel Dolan called it “heavy handed” and claimed that Holyrood should look into the actions of detectives who raided her home.

A spokesperson for the Crown Office said: “Dorothy Bain KC is not politically affiliated to the SNP administration and was appointed with the unanimous approval of the Scottish Parliament.

“Her independence is explicitly protected by law and she exercises her authority as Lord Advocate independently of political pressure, and indeed of any other person.

“To suggest otherwise is an unacceptable slur on her, and on the lawyers in public service with the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service who share her dedication to upholding the rule of law.”

In relation to the SNP probe, a spokesman for the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service said: “As is standard practice in any matter regarding politicians, this is being dealt with by independent prosecutors without the involvement of the Lord Advocate or Solicitor General.”

Asked about plans to review the Lord Advocate’s roles, a Scottish Government spokesman said: “As protected within the Scotland Act, the Law Officers operate entirely independently of any other person as they undertake their prosecutorial and investigation of deaths functions.

“The consultation on the functions of the Law Officers is proceeding as planned. Development of the consultation is to be informed by an initial phase of expert research, which is currently underway.”

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