Scotland

No Alex Salmond apology in Supreme Court row

First Minister Alex Salmond has repeatedly refused to apologise for controversial comments he made about senior legal figures in an interview.

All three opposition party leaders demanded he withdraw comments made about Supreme Court judge Lord Hope and prominent lawyer Tony Kelly.

They were made amid a row over the role of the UK Supreme Court in Scots law.

During question time at Holyrood, Mr Salmond said he had the right of fair comment on an important issue.

The Scottish government says the Supreme Court's role in criminal cases north of the border is undermining the independence of the Scots legal system.

The court has the ability to rule on cases where Scots law conflicts with human rights legislation.

The ongoing row took a controversial turn after Mr Salmond said the political consequences of judgements made by Lord Hope - a Scots judge and deputy president of the UK Supreme Court - were "extreme".

And he claimed Prof Kelly was making "an incredibly comfortable living" from representing the human rights of prisoners.

Mr Salmond made the accusations in an interview with Holyrood magazine which was conducted two weeks ago, during which time he said he was "engaged in a vigorous debate" on the issue.

Labour leader Iain Gray said it was time for the first minister to "grow up, own up and apologise".

Mr Gray said: "It is no answer to say, if you're the first minister of Scotland: 'This is something I said two weeks ago when I was in a bad mood'.

"The truth is, this has spiralled out of control. It started with the usual constitutional grandstanding, it led to gratuitous attacks on judges, courts, lawyers and even newspapers who dared to question the first minister."

Annabel Goldie, the Tory leader, said it was right to investigate the Supreme Court issue, but added: "The first minister's interview with Holyrood magazine amounted to an extraordinary rant.

"It was characterised by bile, intemperance, provocative personal insults and a sneering disregard for the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law."

The Liberal Democrats' Willie Rennie added: "The first minister's refusal to withdraw is embarrassing for him, for this parliament and for Scotland.

"He is creating a needless division between the government and our independent justice system."

Mr Salmond said the Scottish government had appointed a panel of experts to look into the issue, telling MSPs: "When you are first minister of Scotland, or for that matter an opposition leader, you have to address matters of key public concern.

"I think it's a real issue. The integrity of the criminal law of Scotland is a matter of public concern."

He said there was also "a real public issue" about compensation payments to criminals.

"These are real points of public concern, so as well as a right of free speech, we have a duty as parliamentarians to articulate the public concerns and try and bring proper remedy," he said.

Meanwhile, Scotland Office Minister David Mundell said he was seeking clarity from Mr Salmond that he properly understands that his legal duty to "uphold the continued independence of the judiciary" also includes the UK Supreme Court.

The 2008 Judiciary and Courts Act, passed by the Scottish Parliament, makes it clear the first minister is among those who have an explicit duty to protect the independence of the judiciary and to give them the "support necessary to carry out their functions."

Mr Mundell said he wanted Mr Salmond to "state publicly and unequivocally" that he accepts the legislation introduced by his own government.

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