Peter Murrell: What might happen next in the SNP embezzlement probe?

Peter Murrell seen in December 2020
[Getty Images]

The husband of former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been charged in connection with the embezzlement of funds from the Scottish National Party.

Peter Murrell was previously arrested as a suspect on 5 April last year before being released without charge.

On Thursday morning he was taken in custody and was questioned by Police Scotland detectives in Falkirk.

The force confirmed the former SNP chief executive was charged more than nine hours later.

What might happen next?

Police Scotland has decided there is enough evidence to charge Mr Murrell.

The force said that, in due course, they will send what is called a standard prosecution report (SPR) to the procurator fiscal, Scotland's prosecution service.

Just because someone is charged by the police it does not automatically mean there will be a prosecution.

That is for the Crown Office and Prosecution Service (COPFS) to decide.

Once they have the SPR, the procurator fiscal will then consider if there is sufficient evidence to prove a crime has been committed - and that the accused is the person responsible for that crime.

They will also decide whether it is in the public interest to prosecute.

If they decide to go ahead, Mr Murrell, 59, would then appear in court at some point in the coming weeks and months.

The timetable for all of this isn't clear and, at the moment, we are still waiting for that SPR to be sent in.

Once that happens we can expect some sort of statement from the Crown Office.

It will then be for lawyers acting for the Crown to decide if they're going to take that case forward and prosecute Mr Murrell in court.

What is embezzlement?

Embezzlement is broadly defined in the criminal law as the dishonest appropriation of entrusted property.

It's sometimes hard to tell the difference between embezzlement and theft.

But lawyers say the key difference is that with embezzlement, the accused was trusted to deal with and account for the money or property in question.

It usually involves an allegation of exceeding your authority.

It seems that it doesn't matter if the person's intentions were dishonest.

So if you took money from your employer and gave it to a food bank - that can still be embezzlement.

And it apparently doesn't matter if the embezzled funds were re-paid.

In other words the accused doesn't have to profit from what they've done.

As you would expect, we have no details yet as to what Mr Murrell is actually accused of embezzling, but we would expect that to emerge if he is prosecuted.

Police Scotland said that because the investigation is ongoing they are unable to comment further.

They also warned that the matter is active for the purposes of the Contempt of Court Act 1981, which means the public are therefore advised to exercise caution if discussing it on social media.

What is Contempt of Court?

Bewigged lawyers in court

The COPFS took to social media to remind people of the legal restrictions surrounding an active case.

In a post on X, formerly Twitter, it warned: "In Scotland, when a person is charged with a criminal offence the case becomes 'active' in terms of the Contempt of Court Act 1981. This means that any conduct tending to interfere with the course of justice may be treated as a contempt of court, regardless of intent to do so.

"A 'strict liability' rule applies to any publication or communication addressed to the public at large, including online publications. Any information published about an active case must not include commentary or analysis of evidence, witnesses or the accused."

The post added contempt is punishable by up to two years in prison and/or an unlimited fine in serious cases.

It concluded: "Its purpose is to protect the integrity of proceedings, preserve access to justice for victims, and to secure the rights of a fair trial for the accused."

If the case goes to trial how soon could it take place?

Tommy Ross KC
Tommy Ross KC does not believe any trial is likely to happen before 2026 [BBC]

One of Scotland's top advocates said a potential embezzlement trial involving Mr Murrell would be unlikely to happen until 2026 at the earliest.

Thomas Ross KC told BBC Scotland News he did not know whether the case, if it did go to court, would be held at the sheriff or the high court.

But he added: "Clearly if the case was at the high court they already have trials there in August 2025.

"It is not unusual for a case to take a year to get to the high court for its first appearance and then to take another year for the trial.

"So, if we work on that basis that a charge has only just been brought and the case is just about to be reported to the procurator fiscal, then it could easily be two years before the case gets to court."

What now for Nicola Sturgeon?

Nicola Sturgeon
Nicola Sturgeon, pictured in January, on the day she gave evidence before the UK Covid Inquiry in Edinburgh [PA Media]

Scotland's longest serving first minister unexpectedly announced her resignation last March, just weeks before the arrest of her husband and the high profile search of their home.

Three weeks later she told reporters at Holyrood that she had no idea such events were about to unfold when she stood down and described them as her "worst nightmare".

Ms Sturgeon was arrested herself on 11 June and taken into custody after attending a police interview, by prior arrangement, in connection with the inquiry.

She was released without charge seven hours later, pending further investigation.

In a statement, Ms Sturgeon, 53, said at the time: "I know beyond doubt that I am innocent of any wrongdoing".

The former first minister could still be re-arrested as the police inquiry is still ongoing.

The same is also true of the SNP's former treasurer, Colin Beattie, 72 who was arrested on 18 April of last year and released without charge later that day.

On Friday, a police spokeswoman said: "A 72-year-old man arrested on 18 April, 2023, and a 53-year-old woman arrested on 11 June, 2023, have not been re-arrested or charged, but remain under investigation as part of inquiries into the funding and finances of the Scottish National Party."

Speaking later to reporters outside her home, Ms Sturgeon described allegations that her husband embezzled funds from the SNP as "incredibly difficult".

In terms of her career, she intends to carry on as MSP for Glasgow Southside until at least the next Holyrood election in 2026.

Ms Sturgeon's memoir, which she said would be "deeply personal and revealing", is due to be published by Pan Macmillan next autumn.