SCOTLAND's Justice Secretary is facing fresh accusations of political interference in policing after his top civil servant had a secret meeting with the chief constable about his enforced absence from work.

Michael Matheson has been under intense pressure over claims reported in the Sunday Herald that he intervened to block the return of Phil Gormley, who is being investigated over bullying allegations.

However, two days after Gormley’s lawyer warned Matheson there was “no lawful basis” for his actions, senior justice civil servant Paul Johnston met the chief constable at the Scottish Government headquarters in Edinburgh.

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A Government spokesperson said the "brief" meeting had been to discuss the appointment of Susan Deacon as the new chair of the Scottish Police Authority.

However, a spokesperson for Gormley's legal team at Burness Paull LLP said: "At the meeting my client discussed and restated his aim of returning to his position of Chief Constable."

Daniel Johnson, Scottish Labour’s shadow justice spokesman, said: “Political involvement in personnel matters at Police Scotland is a critical red line but one that it appears that Mr Matheson and his officials have blurred if not breached.”

Gormley was granted a leave of absence in September by the SPA - the national oversight body for Police Scotland - after allegations of bullying were made against him.

His leave is considered on a regular basis by the SPA, whose job it is to hold the chief constable to account, and the body’s board decided on November 7 that Gormley should return to work.

However, days later Matheson complained to the then SPA chair Andrew Flanagan that “due process” had not been followed and the decision was reversed.

Gormley’s lawyer fired off letters to both the SPA and Matheson and warned of a potential legal challenge.

In a parliamentary statement to MSPs last week, the Justice Secretary said the initial SPA decision had been “unacceptable” due to a lack of consultation with key stakeholders.

In turn, Matheson was accused by opposition politicians of interfering in policing and undermining the SPA.

HeraldScotland: New Police Scotland Chief Constable Phil Gormley takes the oath during a ceremony with Sheriff Principal Marysia Lewis at Tulliallan Castle in Kincardine.

Picture: Gormley 

It has now emerged a senior Government official met Gormley at the height of the standoff and when the bullying investigation was well underway.

On November 28 - at which point Gormley’s lawyer David Morgan had already warned the SPA of the potential for a judicial review - the solicitor wrote directly to Matheson to complain about the SNP politician’s intervention.

He added: “I have advised my client that there is no lawful basis for Scottish Government's intervention or interference with the lawful decision of the SPA, as the sole statutory body tasked with the operational deployment of the Chief Constable.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson confirmed to this newspaper that, 48 hours after the lawyer wrote to Matheson, senior justice civil servant Paul Johnston met Gormley: “The Director General for Education, Communities and Justice contacted Mr Gormley on 16 November to inform him of the appointment of the new SPA Chair. He subsequently had a brief follow-up meeting with Mr Gormley on 30th November, in the Director General’s office at St Andrew’s House.”

Asked if the SPA decision on November 7th, or Matheson’s subsequent meeting with Flanagan, had been discussed at the Gormley “follow up”, the spokesperson said: “It was to discuss the SPA chair appointment...We have nothing further to add.”

However, the full statement from Gormley's legal team read: "I am instructed by my client to confirm that this meeting between him and the Director General Paul Johnston did take place. At the meeting my client discussed and restated his aim of returning to his position of Chief Constable.

"This was against the background of the SPA Board's unanimous decision that my client should return to work. The SPA decision was discussed as was the letter which I had sent to the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Michael Matheson. I also wrote to Paul Johnston on my client's behalf following this meeting."

CHRONOLOGY OF  THE ROW

November 7th: The Scottish Police Authority decides to allow chief constable Phil Gormley to come back to work

Days later: Justice Secretary Michael Matheson meets ex SPA chair Andrew Flanagan and criticises the plan. Gormley stays on leave

November 14th: Gormley’s lawyer warns any failure to implement the Board’s decision could be challenged legally

November 28th: Gormley’s lawyer writes to Matheson and says there is “no lawful basis” for his intervention

November 30th: Gormley meets senior Scottish Government civil servant Paul Johnston

On Wednesday, after Matheson’s parliamentary statement, Labour MSP Jackie Baillie asked the Justice Secretary whether “he or his officials” had spoken to Gormley since November 7. He did not answer the question.

Matheson was also criticised last week after it was confirmed his meeting with Flanagan in November had not been minuted.

A summary note of the SPA meeting of November 7 that backed Gormley's return was restricted to one line: "Members considered the issues in more detail and instructed the SPA Chief Executive to progress matters on their behalf."

Daniel Johnson added: “This evidence of further political interference in the processes of the SPA is not only disturbing but casts further doubt on the legitimacy Michael Matheson’s actions. It is hard to conceive of a justification for a meeting with a senior officer on leave pending investigation. It is at best inappropriate and at worst evidence of the government acting beyond its legal authority.”

After being made aware of the statement by Gormley’s legal team, a Scottish Government spokesperson added: “At the meeting, the Chief Constable took the opportunity to express his views on his current situation and desire to return to his role as soon as possible.”