Scotland’s top law officer has apologised to MSPs and the public for a “very serious failure in the system of prosecution” which has seen more than £20 million in damages awarded to two former administrators of Rangers Football Club.
Lord Advocate James Wolffe QC said there had been “profound departures from the normal practices” when the Crown decided to prosecute Paul Clark and David Whitehouse.
The lawyer, however, insisted that lessons had been learned, as he told MSPs that the decision to indict the two men had been “indefensible in law”.
The pair had been appointed joint administrators of Rangers in 2012, but were arrested in 2014 regarding their involvement with the administration.
After all the the charges against the pair were either dropped or dismissed, Mr Clark and Mr Whitehouse launched a civil action against the Lord Advocate, seeking damages on the grounds of malicious prosecution.
Mr Wolffe, who was not the Lord Advocate at the time of the initial prosecution, admitted liability in August last year.
After this, mediation took place, resulting in both men being paid £10.5 million in damages.
In addition, Mr Wolffe said more than £3 million had been paid to them in expenses so far.
Lord Mulholland held the post of Lord Advocate from 2011 to 2016.
In a statement to Holyrood, Mr Wolffe said: “These two pursuers were very high-earning professional people and the damages paid reflect a reasonable estimate of the loss that they sustained as a result of being prosecuted.”
He stated: “I cannot at this time disclose the basis on which liability was admitted. But when it is free to do so the Crown will disclose the basis for those admissions in full, including to this Parliament.
“What I can say is that there were in this case profound departures from the normal practices … which are designed to ensure and routinely do ensure that any prosecution in the High Court has a proper basis.”
Mr Wolffe said he had already sent a written apology to both Mr Clark and Mr Whitehouse, as he stressed: “They should not have been prosecuted, and as the current Lord Advocate and as the head of the system of criminal prosecution I apologised unreservedly that they had been.
“I reiterate that unreserved apology to Mr Clark and Mr Whitehouse today.”
He said that while the case “involved significant departures from standard practice lessons have been learned and will continue to be learned”.
The Lord Advocate said processes had been “reinforced” and that new arrangements had been put in place in 2018 for the management and oversight of “large and complex cases”.
These changes “provide a substantial safeguard against anything like this happening again”, Mr Wolffe said.
He added that “in this particular case there was a very serious failure in the system of prosecution”.
Mr Wolffe accepted: “It did not live up to the standards which I expect, which the public and this Parliament are entitled to expect and which the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service expects of itself.
“What happened in this particular case should not have happened. As Lord Advocate and head of the system of prosecution in Scotland I tender my apology to this Parliament and public that it did happen and for the consequent costs to the public purse.”
He expressed his support for an inquiry into what happened “once related matters have concluded”.
But Conservative justice spokesman Liam Kerr said there had been an “extraordinary catalogue of unexplained, profound, departures from the normal practices”.
He added: “This was not simple human error or an obscure legal mistake – this is our system of prosecution, that acting with malice there was a move to throw innocent men behind bars and destroy their reputations.”
Meanwhile, Labour justice spokeswoman Rhoda Grant stated: “The Lord Advocate says that the system has been improved, but there cannot be proper scrutiny of this until we know exactly what went wrong in the first place.
“Until this happens, how can he expect to restore confidence in the system?”
Mr Whitehouse said: “The Lord Advocate said no-one acted out of spite but the fact remains that it was people within Crown Office that took a series of decisions that resulted in us being hauled out of our homes, falsely accused of crimes, incarcerated and prosecuted with malice.
“Those people should be held accountable. I firmly believe that a criminal investigation is justified.”