Scotland’s chief law officer has said he would be “disappointed” if the Scottish government fails to release key documents to the Holyrood investigation into the handling of harassment complaints against Alex Salmond.
The furious row over the Scottish government’s refusal to hand over significant legal papers to the specially convened cross-party committee has escalated in recent weeks, with Salmond’s own lawyer offering to go back to court to access them just as the lord advocate, James Wolffe, offered assurances that the papers would be made available “to the greatest extent possible”.
Wolffe told the latest hearing of the committee on Tuesday morning that wholesale disclosure of the documents, which include papers on Salmond’s judicial review of the harassment inquiry, the Scottish government’s own legal advice and documents from the original investigation, was “not straightforward” with a “range of restrictions and matters that need to be protected”.
While refusing to agree that withholding them represented an “unacceptable level of secrecy”, Wolffe said: “I will be disappointed if [this] doesn’t result in the committee being able to see relevant court documents as far as possible.”
As the committee began its session, it also published a letter from Salmond’s solicitor criticising the Scottish government for providing “partial and incomplete evidence”, and stating he was willing to apply to the court of session for the release of relevant documents, but asking the committee to pick up the legal bill.
Nicola Sturgeon was asked during her live coronavirus briefing at lunchtime whether her government would hand over the documents to avoid Salmond or the committee going to court to recover them. Sturgeon said she had no role in that decision-making, and would not comment.
Wolffe’s undertaking on Tuesday appeared to go further than the deputy first minister, John Swinney, who wrote to the committee on Monday assuring them that the Scottish government was preparing a chronology of the judicial review process, and also “actively exploring what further steps can be taken to enable [them] to have access so far as possible to court documents”.
Leslie Evans, the Scottish government’s permanent secretary, oversaw the botched inquiry into two historic sexual harassment complaints against Salmond. He denied the allegations, and mounted a judicial review of the process, which he won in January 2019 after government lawyers admitted in court the inquiry had been mishandled, and called for Evans to resign.
In March 2020, Salmond was acquitted of 14 charges of alleged sexual misconduct, including an attempted rape, following a trial which heard allegations that civil servants and close aides of Sturgeon had conspired against him, a charge the current first minister has vigorously denied.
During the three-hour evidence session, Leslie Evans pushed back at suggestions of an orchestrated campaign against Salmond. She was asked about a widely reported text she sent to a colleague after conceding the judicial review, which read: “We lost the battle but we will win the war.”
Evans said: “That has been misinterpreted having some kind of conspiratorial element to it. Can I clearly say that is not the case … I was not referring to any individual when I sent that text, I was referring to a long-term commitment of mine and indeed the Scottish government to ensure that equality lies at the heart of what it does.”
Asked directly by the Scottish Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser if she was “at war with Alex Salmond”, she replied firmly “No”.