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Monday, 26 June, 2000, 12:09 GMT 13:09 UK
Skye tolls 'illegal'
Sky Bridge
There have been a series of attempts to challenge the tolls
A leading legal expert says toll collectors on the Skye Bridge may be breaking the law every time they demand payment on the island crossing.

Professor Robert Black of Edinburgh University was invited to scrutinise the toll legislation by campaigners against the system.

The opinion is a welcome boost to campaigners seeking to challenge the legality of the tolls.

Professor Black said the assignation statement by the secretary of state for scotland, which granted authority to Skye Bridge Tolls Ltd, was just seven typewritten sheets, unsigned, undated and not good enough.

He maintained that Miller Civil Engineering (MCE), the company collecting the tolls, was not entitled to act as agents for the operators under contractual law and could be committing a criminal offence every time it demanded payment.

Professor Robert Black
Professor Black: "Very great doubt"
Professor Black said: "If this were a contract, the document which has been produced as the assignation statement would not be accepted as having been properly executed.

"It would be very surprising if it (the document) was not good enough for a contract, it could be good enough as a statutory statement. I don't think it is.

"The legislation specifically provides not just that it shall be a criminal offence to fail to pay a toll when a toll has duly been imposed upon a road, it also creates the crime of demanding a toll when one is not authorised to do so.

"And it is my view that there is very great doubt indeed about whether the people actually demanding the tolls are actually authorised to do so.

"They aren't unless they are agents of Skye Bridge Tolls Ltd."

Opponent's delight

The opinion has delighted campaigner Robbie the Pict and island councillor Drew Miller.

Robbie the Pict said: "I think it would be a fool of a Lord Advocate who carried on blithely and blindly prosecuting members of the public when there was no valid authority for MCE to collect tolls.

"That's what's basically been said and that is a criminal offence being perpetrated minute by minute on the A87.

Mr Miller said: "It's coming from someone of such eminence in the profession that it would be very foolish of Highland Council not to use the finding's of today's inquiry.

Skye Bridge tolls
Some have refused to pay
"It's quite clear that there are fundamental flaws with this and it is very good ammunition for the council to take forward when we're looking for an opinion for a judicial review."

However, three judges at the Court of Appeal in December threw out claims by campaigners that MCE had no authority.

Four protesters, who had been convicted for non-payment, had argued that MCE had no lawful authority to collect the money for crossing without the written consent of the secretary of state.

Lord Sutherland said that the decision of the Skye Bridge company to subcontract the collection of tolls did not require the secretary of state's consent.

Even if his consent was required the judge said he was satisfied that he had given implied consent as it was plain that he was aware of the operating agreement drawn up for the bridge.

Political question

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy has called for the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, to outline exactly what proportion of the Skye bridge tolls is going towards the cost of the project.

In a written parliamentary question, he has asked Mr Brown what percentage of the money handed over at the toll booths is being used to pay off the construction costs.

Mr Kennedy said the public had a right to know where their money was going.

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See also:

30 Nov 99 | Scotland
VAT threat to bridge tolls
07 Sep 99 | Scotland
Drivers 'face more toll costs'
04 Nov 99 | Scotland
Roads plans prompt mixed reactions
04 Nov 99 | Scotland
Green light for roads projects
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