THE investigation into the murder of Surjit Singh Chhokar is to be reopened 13 years after the three men accused of killing the waiter walked free from court.

The breakthrough comes following a meeting between Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland and the family of the victim, who was fatally stabbed outside the flat he shared with his girlfriend in Overtown, North Lanarkshire, in 1998.

Strathclyde Police have been ordered to reopen the case under the Double Jeopardy Act, which now allows an accused to be prosecuted for a crime of which he or she was earlier acquitted.

Three local men stood trial for the murder in 1999 but criticisms were later made of the way the Crown Office prosecuted the accused in two separate trials, a move that ultimately allowed the men to blame each other for the murder.

Ronnie Coulter, who stood accused in the first court case, was convicted only of assault, with his nephew Andrew Coulter and his co-accused David Montgomery walking free from court following the second trial.

A subsequent inquiry into the investigation alleged "institutional racism" within the police and prosecution service, leading to the Chhokar case being dubbed "Scotland's Stephen Lawrence".

David Norris and Gary Dobson were convicted earlier this month of the race-hate murder of Stephen Lawrence in London 18 years ago.

Solicitor Aamer Anwar, speaking on behalf of the Chhokar family after the meeting, said: "Thirteen years ago as Surjit's family began their struggle for justice, every step required their sacrifice and suffering.

"Surjit was described as Scotland's Stephen Lawrence, so when two of Stephen's killers finally faced justice because of the double jeopardy law, the Chhokar family dared to hope that justice was still possible for Surjit. The Lord Advocate and Solicitor General have taken important steps today, but there are significant hurdles to cross. The family believe there is a determination to fight for justice."

He added: "Today is a second chance for the Crown Office to do the right thing but also to show there has been a positive change 13 years later. Surjit's family will only ever be at peace when there is justice. It is now up to the Lord Advocate and Strathclyde Police to do all that is possible."

The Crown Office refused to disclose the grounds on which the fresh investigation was prompted. The recent legislation set out five new conditions on which an accused can be retried for a crime they were previously acquitted of. They include interference or intimidation of a juror or a witness, a new or previously undiscovered confession, or the availability of new evidence.

The High Court must grant the authority for any fresh prosecution under the Act.

Solicitor General for Scotland, Lesley Thompson, QC, said: "The prosecution service is committed to make use of the powers under the new Double Jeopardy legislation. The Scottish Parliament, in passing the Act, has clearly stated that the passage of time since an acquittal should be no protection for those for whom there is new and compelling evidence of guilt."

Labour MSP Graeme Pearson, who was head of crime at Strathclyde Police at the time of the murder, had earlier called for a new investigation, describing the Chhokar case as "unfinished business".