Thursday, 19 February 2015

Pass the parcel over who should call an inquiry

What follows is an item originally posted on this blog on this date five years ago:

A deep shadow

[This is the headline over my most recent column in the Scottish lawyers' magazine The Firm. It reads as follows:]

Despite willingness expressed by both the Scottish and UK Governments to hold an inquiry into the Lockerbie debacle, neither has initiated one, and each appear to expect the other to do so. Professor Robert Black QC says the complicated comedy of manners and faux fidelity hides the knowledge of both that the actings of their legal advisers are fatally compromised.

Abdelbaset al-Megrahi abandoned his appeal because he thought it would maximise his chances of being allowed home to Libya to die (by keeping open the possibility of prisoner transfer). In fact, what Kenny MacAskill did was to release him on compassionate grounds, a procedure which, unlike prisoner transfer, does not require that there be no live legal proceedings. But Mr Megrahi had no way of knowing that this was the way that the Cabinet Secretary for Justice would jump.

The abandonment of the appeal did not signify that he now accepted the justness of his conviction. Far from it. In the statement released on his departure he said: “I had to sit through a trial which I had been persuaded to attend on the basis that it would have been scrupulously fair. In my second, most recent, appeal I disputed such a description. I had to endure a verdict being issued at the conclusion of that trial which is now characterised by my lawyers, and the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, as unreasonable. To me, and to other right thinking people back at home in Libya, and in the international community, it is nothing short of a disgrace.”

So the concerns about the conviction felt by many, including the SCCRC, remain. Until those concerns are officially addressed a deep shadow will hover over the Scottish criminal justice system, both domestically and internationally. It is blindingly obvious that the shadow can now best be removed by the establishment of an independent inquiry into the whole circumstances of the Lockerbie disaster.

The Scottish Government says that it favours an inquiry, but that it should be set up by the UK Government. The UK Government says that since all the legal proceedings relating to Lockerbie were under Scottish jurisdiction, any inquiry must be a matter for the Scottish Government. It is difficult to disagree with the following passage from an editorial in The Herald on 25 October 2009: “Yesterday the British and Scottish Governments continued to play pass the parcel over who should call an inquiry. UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband said it was a matter for the Scots because 'that’s the way our system works', while a Scottish Government spokesman insisted that any inquiry had to be convened 'by those with required powers'. The telephone has been in common use in Britain for more than 100 years. It is not beyond the wit of ministers in London and Edinburgh to agree on the format, structure and remit of a Lockerbie inquiry that hopefully would answer some remaining questions without turning into the open-ended Bloody Sunday-style affair.”

If neither government is opposed to an inquiry, but only at odds about who should convene it, why has the problem not been resolved (as it was in relation to Stockline) by setting up a joint inquiry under section 32 of the Inquiries Act 2005? Could the answer be the legal advice that both governments are receiving?

If the possibility of holding a public inquiry were to be discussed within the Scottish Government, from whom would the Scottish Ministers seek advice on the legal aspects of any such enterprise? From their principal legal adviser, the Lord Advocate. If such an inquiry were to be set up, one of the issues at the forefront of its terms of reference would have to be the conduct of the prosecution before, during and after the Lockerbie trial. Who is the head of the Scottish prosecution system? The Lord Advocate, of course.

If the possibility of holding a public inquiry were to be discussed within the UK Government, from whom would UK Ministers seek advice on the Scottish legal aspects of any such enterprise? From their principal Scottish legal adviser, the Advocate General for Scotland. Who was it who in the recent appeal fought valiantly and successfully to keep documents out of the hands of Megrahi’s legal team? The Advocate General for Scotland, of course.

Just the teensiest suspicion of a conflict of interest here, perhaps?

[RB: And five years later the conflicts of interest continue.]

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