No minutes are held of two meetings the Scottish Government held with its lawyers to discuss the legal challenge brought by former first minister Alex Salmond over the handling of harassment allegations against him.
MSPs on the Holyrood committee set up to investigate the Government’s botched handling of the case had asked to see the record of conversations held on November 2 and November 13 2018.
Both First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Scotland’s most senior civil servant, Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans, were at that later meeting, the Conservatives claimed.
Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said new documents, published on Friday, showed that “Nicola Sturgeon thought she was a better lawyer than Queen’s Counsel. She was emphatically wrong and it cost taxpayers more than £500,000”.
And he added: “The fact there are missing minutes from the meeting that Nicola Sturgeon herself attended confirms this is a cover up. Crucial evidence has been hidden.”
Meanwhile, Tory MSP Donald Cameron said: “I’ve acted as counsel for the Scottish Government. At consultations, everyone takes notes. It is inconceivable these minutes don’t exist.”
The lawyers had already warned ministers of difficulties with the case, with papers showing on September 26 2018 senior and junior counsel advised of a “real risk that the Court may be persuaded” by a legal challenge “attacking various aspects of the investigation process”.
By December 17, however, Roddy Dunlop QC and Solicitor Advocate Christine O’Neill said they were “firmly of the view that at least one of the challenges mounted by the petitioner (Mr Salmond) will be successful”.
They added that “we simply wish all concerned – and we include the First Minister in this – to be absolutely certain that they wish us to plough on regardless” with the defence of the case.
While that legal advice has now been made public, Deputy First Minister John Swinney told MSPs on the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints that no minutes are held for the meetings in question.
Mr Swinney said: “Although the attendees are known, and the Committee is aware of these, we do not hold any minutes of these meetings.”
He added: “The products of these meetings were adjustments to the Scottish Government’s legal position that followed these consultations and have already been shared with the Committee as they are reflected in the pleadings already provided.”
The Scottish Government conceded the case in January 2019, with the Court of Session ruling it had acted “unlawfully” in its handling of the complaints.
Mr Ross hit out: “The government was advised to concede a month before they did. Then they ran up an even bigger bill for weeks after they had been told the case was unstatable, the minimum requirement to proceed.
“Their case was doomed from the start but they hid the evidence from their own lawyers, to the embarrassment and utter dismay of Roddy Dunlop QC.”
Meanwhile, Scottish Labour deputy leader and committee member Jackie Baillie said it was “extremely disappointing to hear from John Swinney that several key meetings with counsel are apparently without minutes”.
Ms Baillie said: “The basic failure to ensure that there is a written record of key meetings speaks volumes about the way in which the Scottish Government approached the whole matter.
“I am sure that counsel will have taken notes and it is open to the Scottish Government as the client to waive confidentiality and provide these to the committee, especially those for the meeting on November 13.”
She also said newly-released documents showed that the Scottish Government “refused conceding the judicial review for as long as feasibly possible and that the astonishing failures of the investigation directly led to the women involved being cruelly let down”.
Ms Baillie said: “The documents tell of ‘entirely avoidable’ errors and mention that officials and lawyers were put in ‘extremely difficult’ professional positions due to the failings of the government.
“The Scottish Government should be ashamed of the catastrophic errors it made in this case; errors that failed the taxpayer and most importantly the women involved.”