SNP ministers set for court battle over Hamilton Report evidence on Nicola Sturgeon's conduct

Evidence about alleged misconduct by Nicola Sturgeon around the Alex Salmond inquiry is set to be subject to a court battle with ministers disputing a transparency ruling.

Ministers were found to have incorrectly claimed they did not hold the written evidence provided to the independent investigator on the ministerial code, James Hamilton, for his investigation into the conduct of the First Minister.

In a ruling earlier this year, the Scottish Information Commissioner ruled the Government had incorrectly claimed the evidence, which included highly controversial and legally challenging claims and detail, was held by Mr Hamilton rather than by ministers.

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Ministers were asked by an applicant to publish all the written evidence in full in April 2021. But it was claimed they did not hold the information and it was instead held by Mr Hamilton, who was outside the scope of the Freedom of Information legislation. The commissioner, however, disagreed.

Nicola Sturgeon with Alex Salmond whilst on the General Election campaign trail in Inverurie in the Gordon constituency in 2015Nicola Sturgeon with Alex Salmond whilst on the General Election campaign trail in Inverurie in the Gordon constituency in 2015
Nicola Sturgeon with Alex Salmond whilst on the General Election campaign trail in Inverurie in the Gordon constituency in 2015

This ruling will now subject to a court battle after ministers informed the requestor and the Commissioner they intend to appeal the decision to the Court of Session for just the ninth time in the history of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act.

The applicant, Benjamin Harrop, told The Scotsman he hoped the courts sided with “transparency and common sense”.

He said: “I find the decision to appeal completely bizarre. In nearly 20 years since the 2002 FOI act came into force, Scottish ministers have appealed only a handful of cases from the independent SIC.

“My original request was submitted in April of 2021. Nearly two years on, the case is still ongoing, and this appeal is not even in reference to whether the evidence should be disclosed or not, but whether, as Scottish ministers argue, if they even hold this evidence. Which is simply an outlandish position to take.

“The investigation was instigated by the First Minister, civil servants assisted Mr Hamilton, the report was submitted to the Deputy First Minister, and its findings were binding on the First Minister. I only hope that the courts side with transparency and common sense.”

The Hamilton Report was undertaken concurrently with the Scottish Parliament’s inquiry into the Government’s botched handling of harassment complaints made against the former first minister, Mr Salmond, now leader of the Alba Party.

Ms Sturgeon was cleared by Mr Hamilton after referring herself to the investigator over concerns about her conduct connected to the handling of harassment complaints against Mr Salmond.

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She was found to have not misled Holyrood, despite the parliamentary inquiry ruling she had misled the committee about her involvement.

Had the investigation ruled she had breached the ministerial code, Ms Sturgeon would have been expected to have resigned.

Much of the information published as part of the Hamilton Report’s process was subject to fierce political scrutiny and legal debate, most notably when the Crown Office intervened and demanded The Spectator magazine remove Mr Salmond’s full evidence to the inquiry.

The submission was initially published, taken down, redacted and republished by the Scottish Parliament following the Crown Office’s intervention.

Mr Salmond was acquitted of several sexual offences by a jury after being subject to a criminal trial in early 2020.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We are committed to openness and transparency and recognise that scrutiny is essential for effective governance. As this case is now before the court, we will not comment on live legal proceedings.”

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