Brian Wilson: Murky business and the Law Society

Michelle Thomsons link to struck-off solicitor Christopher Hales seems not to have sounded alarm at Law SocMichelle Thomsons link to struck-off solicitor Christopher Hales seems not to have sounded alarm at Law Soc
Michelle Thomsons link to struck-off solicitor Christopher Hales seems not to have sounded alarm at Law Soc
Michelle Thomson case highlights need to hold professional body to account, writes Brian Wilson

Michelle Thomson first impinged upon my consciousness on the first day of June last year when I took part in a BBC referendum programme with the leading light of “Business for Scotland” representing the other point of view.

It would be fair to say that Mrs Thomson made a lasting impression, though not for the most flattering of reasons. She was, without doubt, the most pre-programmed individual I ever encountered in such a role. By comparison, the Speaking Clock seemed like an ­original thinker.

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Her capacity for reciting the brief was startling – a facility which doubtless trumped all others in the eyes of her SNP patrons. Ironically, this involved proclaiming her political independence. By her own account, she was no more than a public-spirited entrepreneuse, devoid of party allegiance and drawn to the cause by business acumen.

“I am not sitting here representing the SNP,” she declared primly. “Actually, I am not necessarily a Nationalist.”

Miraculously, within a year, this “not necessarily a Nationalist” had been reborn as the shadow secretary for business, innovation and skills on behalf of the political party which, by then, held 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats.

Amidst other dimensions of this case, it is worth noting the monumental disdain for Scottish business which her elevation signified. This is a key Whitehall department for serious Scottish interests. Yet the SNP leadership entrusted the brief to an individual with no credentials – as a quick check would have confirmed – other than through their front organisation, “Business for Scotland”.

But back to that June day. In retrospect, it was a tour de force in sheer brass neck. Mrs Thomson, we now know, had just been removed from the “Business for Scotland” payroll at the behest of Peter Murrell, chief executive of the SNP and husband of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. She was allowed to hang on to her title as “managing director” only in order to avoid damaging publicity.

However, even this setback might have been the lesser of Mrs Thomson’s concerns as we shared a studio on 1 June, 2014. By then, she knew that Police Scotland had excellent reason to come knocking on one of her many doors, pursuant to the striking off of the solicitor to her property company, Christopher Hales, by the Law Society of Scotland.

Their disciplinary tribunal had just reported, citing multiple potential mortgage frauds. There was much for Police Scotland to inquire into. But as she recited the SNP script about currency and an impending North Sea boom, nobody would have guessed that this blossoming political career was hanging by the thread of impending scandal.

Nor, indeed, did she have cause for immediate panic, given that the Law Society of Scotland controlled the timetable. It would be another 13 months before they took the action which is apparently required to trigger the interest of Scotland’s legal authorities – in itself a remarkable state of affairs, vulnerable – as now confirmed by events – to incompetence.

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Meanwhile, Michelle Thomson’s rise within Nationalist ranks was back on track, now garlanded with lavish praise from their high command, from Ms Sturgeon downwards. My favourite is Alex Neil’s recognition of her “excellent grasp of the economic picture” coupled with “commitment to how business can be used to support social justice”. LOL, as the kids would say.

Her starring role in the Hales case remained unexposed and uninvestigated. One is bound to wonder whether in some quarters the working assumption was that the danger had passed and the promotion of Michelle Thomson as an SNP politician could safely resume. In short, would we ever have known that “Mrs A” in the tribunal findings was Michelle Thomson, if the Press had not told us?

In his statement to Holyrood, the Lord Advocate, Frank Mulholland, referred to “quarterly meetings” between his officials and the Law Society at which the agenda includes “whether the Law Society will make a referral in relation to a solicitor who has been struck off”.

This set me wondering how many such meetings were held between the tribunal ruling and the Crown Office acting.

So I asked the Law Society by e-mail and the answer received from their “communications manager” is worth quoting in full: “These meetings are roughly quarterly. I don’t have the dates of every meeting that takes place. Like all meetings they are subject to change.”

Well, thanks a lot for that.

We are none the wiser about how many meetings occurred without the Hales/Thomson case being raised. What we do know is that the period within which it was not raised covered the last four months of the referendum campaign, the selection of Mrs Thomson as a Westminster parliamentary candidate, her election as an MP and her anointment as shadow business secretary. How extraordinary.

But perhaps, I hear you wonder, the Law Society was so overburdened with cases involving “a solicitor who has been struck off” that there was a backlog of business at these meetings?

Well, no, actually. The going rate is three or four in a year. So what on Earth can account for the repeated failure of these “quarterly meetings” – if they existed – to discuss the Hales/Thomson case?

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Apart from the political considerations, one is struck by the incredible insouciance with which potential white collar crime is pursued in Scotland. The issues eventually dealt with by the tribunal were uncovered in 2011. Yet everything remained within the Law Society’s internal proceedings until they got round to “formally” notifying the Crown Office four years later.

Are victims entitled to no consideration while the law enforcement agencies defer to the Law Society, a mere professional body? Why is it not incumbent on the Law Society to report suspected criminality to the police, just like anyone else, rather than relying on post-tribunal “quarterly meetings” which may or may not take place, years after the potential offences were identified?

The Lord Advocate told Holyrood that he saw no need for an inquiry into any of this. Well, he would, wouldn’t he?

But he also pointed out that the decision is not his to take. So whose is it?

I am told there is a justice committee at Holyrood. Over to you, Christine Grahame SNP MSP and convener?

OK, I’m not serious.