A trust with ties to the Liberal Democrats has this week donated a further £16,000 towards Alistair Carmichael’s legal fees, following a donation of £34,000 earlier in the year.
The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust (JRRT) decided to assist the Northern Isles MP with his legal bill of £155,000 after he was taken to the Court of Session in Edinburgh over the so-called “Frenchgate” scandal.
Four Orkney constituents decided to pursue a case against Mr Carmichael after he admitted to leaking a memo which attempted to undermine SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon.
These constituents – dubbed the “Orkney Four” – argued that Mr Carmichael lied in order to protect his position at an election last May. They contended that Mr Carmichael breached the Representation of the People’s Act and that he should have been unseated for his dishonesty, which they said arguably contributed to his narrow re-election over SNP candidate Danus Skene.
Mr Carmichael was cleared of the breach in court although judges criticised his conduct. In a written statement Lady Paton said: “The first respondent’s approach to the inquiry was at best disingenuous and at worst self-serving.”
Because the court took the view that Mr Carmichael had lied for political purposes they ruled that: “Expenses are neither liable or due to any party in the case.” As a result Mr Carmichael and the Orkney Four were left to foot their respective legal bills.
The challengers were able to cover their legal fees via a crowdfunding campaign which saw them raise over £200,000. A similar campaign by Mr Carmichael only mustered around £15,000.
But now those funds have been bolstered by money from the JRRT, whose £50,000 handout is over double the size of any other donation made by the organisation this year.
The JRRT is a York-based limited company founded by the same English Quaker, Liberal and chocolate manufacturer who founded the charitable Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Although the two organisations share a common history they operate under different rules and aims. In a statement released following media interest in the Carmichael donation the trust claimed that it was set up “with the express intention that it should act beyond the limits of charitable activity”.
The trust states that its aims are to “correct imbalances of power” and support “the voice of the individual, the small and weak where that voice is stifled by the group, the big and strong”.
Their values are rooted in a desire to stand up for “the defence of liberty, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and freedom from all forms of oppression, be that political, religious, economic or social”.
Owing to its liberal leanings the organisations has seen fit to donate to Mr Carmichael even though its website claims none of the £1 million granted to various causes annually can go towards legal fees.
Despite the fact that the chairman of the trust, Sir Nick Harvey, was a Liberal Democrat MP from 1992 until 2015, the statement issued by the organisation avoids explicitly lending support to the party.
Instead it claims “the trust has made grants to individuals and organisations within all three major parties”, though it does concede that over the years the trust has “believed in the importance of strengthening the one political party that has most consistently promoted democratic reform and defended civil liberties in Britain”.
This much is obvious given that the organisation granted a total of £90,000 to the Scottish and Welsh Liberal Democrats last year, in order to fund election campaigns for 2016. The only other political party to be granted funds in 2015 for electioneering was the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland.
The JRRT have also promised the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors “up to £480,000 over five years to develop campaign infrastructure in England and Wales”.
The organisation, however, claims that the handout to Mr Carmichael was given on principle, and not because of political allegiances.
They reason that it was granted in order to protect “Members of Parliament [from] the risk of personal bankruptcy in defending themselves in court against vexatious and highly political claims”.
This is the view taken by the trust despite Lady Paton ruling that there was no evidence that the “Orkney Four” had brought a “vexatious” case against Mr Carmichael.