Scotland’s highest civil court will have to decide whether flagship land reforms can breach the human rights of landowners.
A bid by crofters to take over part of the 26,800 acre Pairc estate on Lewis could take years after a sheriff directed the Court of Session in Edinburgh to decide whether the Scottish Land Reform Act 2003 is consistent with the European Convention on Human Rights.
Sheriff David Sutherland at Stornoway Sheriff Court made the direction before he considers an appeal from the landlord at the centre of the dispute.
Critics have previously compared the laws to the regime of President Mugabe in Zimbabwe, who has forced white people from their land through violence and intimidation.
At issue is the section in the act which gives crofting communities the absolute right to buy their croft land, subject to ministerial approval, whether or not the owner wants to sell.
Barry Lomas, a Warwickshire-based accountant, does not want to sell the estate his family bought in 1924. He has claimed the act breaches his human rights and that he is the “whipping boy of land reform”.
Both sides urged the Scottish Government to release the official valuation price which was assessed by an independent surveyor but ordered to remain secret at the last minute.
Almost 400 people live on the estate, which covers a similar area to Edinburgh.
It embraces 11 townships and 208 crofts. Much of the area being fought over is boggy moorland but at stake is the control of potentially lucrative profits from a £110 million wind farm.
Residents have declined to buy out the croftland villages, opting, instead, for the houseless common grazings having been advised to take this route given the tight timescale and detailed mapping requirements buying the full estate would require.
The ground presently has little value except as rough pasture for livestock, but Scottish and Southern Energy’s application to build a giant windfarm has raised the odds.
Scottish ministers gave the crofters of the Pairc Trust permission to proceed and Mr Lomas sought to appeal that decision in court yesterday. But last year he also petitioned for a judicial review in the Court of Session on the human rights aspects of the legislation.
That had been put on hold, but yesterday Sheriff David Sutherland directed the Court of Session to rule on the human rights issues before he heard the rest of the appeal on the ministers’ decision to approve the buyout.
Some predict it could take up to a year for the Court of Session to make a ruling, and thereafter there is a right of appeal which could take even longer.
John Randall, vice-chair of the community-led Pairc Trust, which is behind the buy-out bid, said “The sheriff said it had to be referred to the Court of Session by July 21. Nobody knows when the Court of Session will be able to set down dates for a hearing or indeed how long an appeal would take. That’s my understanding, and after all that it’s back to Stornoway Sheriff Court for the rest of Mr Lomas’s appeal.”
Mr Lomas said last night: “Pairc Estate continues, as it has done for many years, to encourage members of the Pairc community to come forward to discuss how progress can be made, away from the failings of politicians and Pairc Trust.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “As the legal process is still ongoing, it would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage.”