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Gagging appeal refused

SCOTLAND’S highest civil court has refused to grant Shetland councillor Caroline Miller an interim interdict to gag her fellow councillor Gary Robinson and Shetland News from commenting on her business and council activities.

On 23 December Lerwick North councillor Caroline Miller instructed her Edinburgh-based lawyers Morton Fraser to seek an interim interdict in the Court of Session against Mr Robinson and the island news agency.

Her move followed public outrage at reports that she had received rental payments owed to her husband’s company Judane (Shetland) Ltd, which itself owes more than £600,000 to the council’s investment agency Shetland Development Trust.

On 9 December councillors agreed to waive two thirds of that loan, though no official explanation for that decision has yet been made. Only three councillors voted against the decision.

It emerged the following week that Mrs Miller had received rental payments owed to Judane, even though she describes herself as an unpaid consultant to the company.

On 16 December Shetland News reported that Chris Hodge, who was renting out the company’s redundant knitwear factory, had paid £21,530 to Caroline Miller trading as Northern Isles Knitwear between January and November 2007, the year she was elected to Shetland Islands Council.

The website also quoted councillor Robinson’s call for an investigation into the matter.

On 17 December Morton Fraser, who represent Judane, Mrs Miller and her husband Frank, wrote to councillor Robinson and Shetland News saying their clients considered the article to be defamatory.

On 21 December Shetland News reported that a Lerwick resident, who wished to remain anonymous, had complained to the Standards Commission over the affair, claiming that she was in breach of the councillors’ code of conduct.

Two days later Shetland News received a letter from Morton Fraser saying Mrs Miller was seeking “an interim and full interdict against your newspaper…as a matter of urgency”. A similar letter was sent to councillor Robinson.

Yesterday (Thursday) the Court of Session said the interdicts had been refused. Douglas Milne, of Morton Fraser, said: “The application was lodged and the judge has not granted an order. I am taking instructions from Mrs Miller.”

Neither Shetland News or councillor Robinson were in court to defend themselves against the application, and no explanation for the refusal has been given.

Yesterday councillor Robinson said: “I am pleased with the ruling. I never believed I had made any defamatory or untrue statements and the judgment of the court appears to back that up.”

A Shetland News spokesman said: “Lawyers do not normally find it hard to obtain an interim interdict, so the fact that we were not present to defend ourselves demonstrates how weak Mrs Miller’s case must have been.

“It remains of the greatest public interest that a local councillor has financial involvement with a company which not only owes the Shetland Development Trust £600,000, but which councillors have apparently agreed to relieve of two thirds of that debt for reasons that remain unclear, at a time when the community’s resources are under tremendous strain.

“In our eyes it is astonishing that Mrs Miller has not only refused to answer any questions from the media about her involvement with Judane, but has sought to stop us from asking those questions in the first place and to stop councillor Gary Robinson from commenting on her behaviour.

“We would suggest that Mrs Miller refrains from spending large sums of money instructing her lawyers to gag us, and instead provides us with the answers which people in Shetland have the right to hear.

“Shetland News always seeks to maintain professional standards of journalism and will corroborate any information before it is published on our website.”

Mrs Miller failed to respond to requests for a comment from Shetland News, but speaking on BBC Radio Shetland last night she said that a statement would be coming soon.

“Due to the enormous public interest in this whole affair I think it’s only right and proper that the Shetland public know the full truth of the matter,” she said.

“Unfortunately at the moment due to legal issues between certain parties I can say nothing at all, but as soon as I am able to, you will be knowing the full story.”