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Lord Advocate & Crown Agent evidence to Scottish Parliament committee on handling of harassment complaints

Comments have been made about the Crown which are without foundation, and the public is entitled to hear the truth about these matters from me.

As head of the system of criminal prosecution in Scotland, it is my responsibility to establish arrangements for the proper administration of criminal justice; and that is what I have done in relation to this case.

From the outset, I put its conduct entirely in the hands of Principal Crown Counsel, Scotland’s senior professional prosecutor. Like other Crown Counsel he holds a commission which authorises him to exercise to the full my prosecutorial powers as Lord Advocate, and to do so without any reference to me.

I also put in place specific arrangements so that the Law Officers had no personal involvement in this case. I did that to reinforce confidence in the absolute integrity of the administration of justice. And for that reason, the decisions in relation to contempt of court and other matters which have arisen since the trial have also been put entirely in the hands of Crown Counsel.

Any suggestion from any quarter that the Crown’s decision-making has at any time been influenced by irrelevant considerations or improper motivations would be wholly without foundation. Insinuations or assertions to the contrary are baseless.

The Crown has been criticised for actions which it has taken to protect the identity of the complainers at Mr Salmond’s trial, so it is important that I explain the position.

The trial judge made an order to protect the complainers’ identities. Any breach of that order – by this Parliament, by its members or anyone else – would punishable as a contempt of court.

The Crown will seek to protect the administration of justice by advising publishers – including, if necessary, the Parliamentary authorities - if it considers that a publication would breach the order. But only the court can decide whether any particular publication is a contempt; and it is for publishers to decide for themselves what they can lawfully publish.

Last week, following an intervention by the Crown, the Parliamentary authorities decided to redact certain evidence provided by Mr Salmond. That was their decision, and they were right to take it. Can I be clear, any restriction on what can be published by the parliament flows from the terms of the Court’s order and any suggestion that the Crown is seeking to limit the Committee in this matter is incorrect.

The court order specifically restricts the publication of information; it does not prevent the committee from considering that information.

Separately, Mr Salmond has stated that the Crown has tied his hands in respect of his use of information he holds. It is the law, not the Crown, that stays his hands.

Let me be clear why the law does that. In any criminal investigation, people may provide information and evidence to the police and prosecutors of the most sensitive, personal nature. It is the Crown’s responsibility to treat that information with the greatest care. There are statutory provisions which oblige the Crown to disclose information to the solicitors for an accused, and that is right. That’s to ensure a fair trial.

Those same legal provisions prohibit the use of that material by the accused or his solicitors for other purposes. That prohibition secures the confidence of people who provide information and evidence to the police and it protects the administration of justice. The statute contains no exceptions.

The prohibition applies to information which the Crown disclosed to Mr Salmond’s solicitors. Mr Salmond, like anyone else in that position, is bound to observe the law; and the Crown, for its part, has a responsibility to maintain public confidence in the integrity of this important feature of our criminal justice system.

If the Committee wishes to see that material it can do so, by serving a section 23 notice on the Crown, as it has done, which will be considered in accordance with the relevant legal rules.
In some quarters, the legal restrictions on the material which can be placed before, or published by, this Committee are viewed with frustration. But those restrictions serve important public purposes; in particular they exist to ensure the confidentiality of sensitive information and the sound administration of justice. 

Enforcing the law, including the law made by this Parliament, is a vindication of democracy not its denial. And any suggestion that the professional prosecutors who are charged with these matters have been acting for any reason other than to ensure that the law is observed and to protect the administration of justice, would be wholly without foundation.

In his evidence, Mr Salmond has questioned the conduct of the Crown Agent, who is here with me today. The Crown Agent is the professional head of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. He is an exceptional public servant and a professional prosecutor of the utmost integrity. No one is more zealous in defending the independence of the Crown. No currency should be given to any imputation against his professional character. He has shown extraordinary leadership through a challenging period and he has my fullest support.

As Lord Advocate, I am constitutionally accountable, including to this Parliament, for the actions of Scotland’s public prosecutors. Most of the decisions for which I am accountable – including in the most sensitive cases - are made by professional prosecutors without reference to the Law Officers.

The decisions which prosecutors make may be difficult and are sometimes unpopular, but it is the job of prosecutors to take difficult decisions, and to do so without fear or favour, impartially and without any regard to any extraneous considerations. They do this in the public interest and they do so on the basis of the law and the evidence. They act with complete and utter independence. That is what they routinely do; and that is what they have done in relation to this case. They have my absolute support and confidence and they deserve your trust too.

The Crown is a central institution of our criminal justice system. By all means hold me to account and I’m sure the Committee will do so. But the Committee should not entertain any attack on the integrity of the Crown or of the hardworking people who work for it. Now I will be glad to answer your questions.