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The National (Scotland)
The National (Scotland)
Xander Elliards

Crown Office dismisses allegations of search warrant delay in SNP inquiry

A FORMER Scottish justice secretary has called for a full, judge-led inquiry into the Crown Office, alleging that it may have delayed the granting of a search warrant for Nicola Sturgeon’s house until the end of the SNP leadership race.

But the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) has insisted that there was no delay and that the timing of the procedure was not out of the ordinary.

An insider further said the suggestion of a judge-led inquiry into an ongoing criminal investigation was “ludicrous”.

The news comes after reports in the Scottish Sun, based on a Freedom of Information request, suggested that COPFS may have delayed the warrant until after the SNP leadership contest had concluded.

Police first submitted a draft warrant to COPFS on Monday, March 20.

The COPFS then checked the legality of the document, before submitting a finalised warrant to be signed by a sheriff on Monday, April 3.

The warrant was signed the same day and carried out by police – who also searched SNP headquarters and seized a £110,000 motorhome linked to the party – two days later, on Wednesday April 5.

Guidance from Police Scotland states that the procedure for obtaining a search warrant, submitting it to COPFS for review before a sheriff for approval, has to be “followed in all cases and at all times”. However, no timescale is given as to how long it may be expected to take.

An insider with COPFS said the two weeks between the application and granting of the warrant was “not unusual”.

“I don’t understand what motivation the Procurator Fiscal would have in delaying a warrant, for what end?” they said.

“This is a criminal investigation and every one varies according to the facts and circumstances. This isn’t a political investigation.”

Former first minister Sturgeon announced her resignation on February 15, and her husband Peter Murrell resigned as SNP chief executive amid a storm over membership numbers on March 18.

As such, both had stepped down before the police submitted a draft warrant on March 20, one week after voting in the SNP leadership race opened on March 13.

The ballot concluded on Monday, March 27 with Humza Yousaf being named the winner in a close-run final vote.

Kenny MacAskill, an Alba MP and former Scottish justice secretary, said the timing around the COPFS procedure warranted a full inquiry.

MacAskill said: “These are matters of the utmost gravity and seriousness with huge implications for the functioning of our legal system and our democracy.

“As justice secretary I was involved in changes to expedite the warrant process. Delays then were due to bureaucracy and IT systems. I never envisaged that police investigations might be delayed by what appears to be political considerations.

“That is why I am today calling for a judge-led inquiry into COPFS in order to restore trust and confidence in this vital institution and to reassure the public that the decisions taken by COPFS have not been influenced by political considerations.

“Furthermore we must have absolute clarity that there has not been and will not be any outside and undue interference in the democratic process.”

An official spokesperson for the COPFS said: “In all matters, Scotland’s prosecutors act independently of political pressure or interference.

“It is standard that any case regarding politicians is dealt with by prosecutors without the involvement of the Lord Advocate or Solicitor General.

"COPFS understands the interest in this case but to protect the fair administration of justice we urge restraint in public comment.

"It is standard that any case regarding politicians is dealt with by prosecutors without the involvement of the Lord Advocate or Solicitor General.

"COPFS will continue to work with police on this ongoing investigation.”

Scottish Labour's deputy leader Jackie Baillie (above) said the timing would "lead to raised eyebrows across Scotland", and said that it raised questions about the role of the Lord Advocate.

Baillie said: "Whilst I accept that the Lord Advocate may not have had a direct influence on the timing, this story underlines why we need to have a serious discussion about separating the role of the Lord Advocate to ensure that no perception of conflict of interest can ever occur."

MacAskill echoed Baillie, saying: “Ultimately these matters can best be addressed through the separation of powers between COPFS and the Government currently vested in the Lord Advocate. This is something which I have consistently called for."

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