HOLYROOD’S justice committee is being urged to hold an inquiry into Scotland’s legal system over the fall-out of the Michelle Thomson case.
Labour wants the investigation to look at whether the Law Society of Scotland should act as the country’s legal watchdog amid concerns that it took more than a year formally to refer the Christopher Hales case to the Crown Office after he was struck off. The former lawyer was involved in a number of property deals involving Thomson’s firm. The MP has quit the SNP whip over the affair.
A police inquiry has now been launched into Hales, and Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland told MSPs this could be widened if that is where the evidence led.
But Labour’s public services spokeswoman, Jackie Baillie, now says the Scottish Parliament must stage its own inquiry.
“The details of this case have astonished the people of Scotland,” Baillie writes in a letter to Holyrood’s justice committee convener Christine Grahame.
“At its heart are vulnerable people preyed upon in predatory property deals. It is clear further questions need to be answered. We cannot afford a situation where the Scottish establishment appears to close ranks to protect their own.”
Labour wants the inquiry to look at the conduct of the Law Society in the Hales case and whether the organisation should act as both “regulator and advocate” in the legal profession. Nicola Sturgeon last week backed Labour calls for the body to publish all documents relating to the case.
The Law Society has faced awkward questions over the length of time taken formally to submit evidence on the case to the Crown Office. Hales had been suspended in September 2011, two months after a routine inspection by the Scottish Solicitors’ Discipline Tribunal (SSDT) raised concerns over 13 property transactions.
Concerns about potential criminal matters were informally mentioned to prosecutors in December 2014 and April 2015. But they were not formally raised until July 2015 when an “unredacted” version of the SSDT Hales report was submitted to prosecutors revealing the clients’ names.
The Law Society said it had a legal duty to report suspicious activity, and has now revealed that it submitted a “suspicious activity report” (SAR) to the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) in October 2011. SARs are designed to alert law enforcement agencies to potential money laundering.
But Labour says the 2011 referral does “not account for the delay” of more than a year between Hales being struck off as a solicitor and the Law Society of Scotland passing on the full details to the Crown Office.
“There are currently many more questions than answers,” Baillie added.
“It has to be questioned whether it is appropriate for the Law Society to continue to act as both regulator and advocate for the legal profession, with some suggesting that there is a direct conflict of interest. I am concerned that there is a perception that the Law Society was putting the interests of its members above all else.”
A Scottish Parliament spokeswoman said yesterday that the inquiry call will be considered when the justice committee discusses its work programme at its next meeting on 27 October.