SCOTLAND’S top law officer has publicly apologised to two men wrongly prosecuted during a fraud investigation relating to the sale of Rangers after at least £24 million of public money will be paid out to settle the dispute.

David Whitehouse and Paul Clark, who acted as administrators during the sale of the football club, settled out of court with the Crown Office in December and were both awarded £10.5 million in damages while legal costs will be in excess of £3 million.

Lord Advocate James Wolffe has now publicly apologised for the malicious prosecution but denied anyone had acted with malice.

But he has been accused of “brushing this appalling state of affairs under the carpet” if public confidence isn’t restored through an independent inquiry.

Mr Whitehouse and Mr Clark were arrested in 2014 but the Crown Office has admitted the prosecution that followed was “malicious”.

Mr Wolffe made a statement to Holyrood on the fiasco and admitted that decisions made were “indefensible in law”.

READ MORE: David Whitehouse: Ex-Rangers chief fears justice system won't face up to malicious probe scandal

He said: “I concluded that those decisions proceeded without probably cause, i.e. without a proper evidential basis – in circumstances which met the legal test for malicious prosecution.”

But the Lord Advocate said that despite the affair being a malicious prosecution, “no individual had malice in the poplar sense of a spiteful motive”.

He added: “My acceptance of liability in this case did not depend on any individual being malicious in that popular sense.”

Mr Wolffe told MSPs that “profound departures from the normal practices” had taken place, and also admitted breaches over Mr Clark and Mr Whitehouse being detained in November 2014 and September 2015 and over an inaccurate press release being issued.

He said: “Each of them has been paid £10.5 million in damages and, to date, over £3 million has been paid to them in aggregate in way of expenses.

HeraldScotland: David Whitehouse and Paul Clark have received millions of pounds in public moneyDavid Whitehouse and Paul Clark have received millions of pounds in public money

“They should not have been prosecuted and as the current Lord Advocate and head of the system of criminal prosecutions, I apologised unreservedly that they had been. I reiterate that unreserved apology publicly to Mr Clark and Mr Whitehouse today.”

He added: “In this particular case, there was a very serious failure in the system of prosecution. It did not live up to the standards which I expect, which the public and this parliament are entitled to expect and which the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service expects of itself.

“What happened in this particular case should not have happened. “As Lord Advocate and head of the system of prosecution in Scotland, I tender my apology to this Parliament and to the public that it did happen and for the subsequent cost to the public purse.”

Scottish Conservative justice spokesperson, Liam Kerr, said there had been an “extraordinary catalogue of unexplained, profound departures from the normal practices”.

He added: “What is indefensible is that as the decisions proceeded without probably cause, i.e. without a proper evidential basis, this was a malicious prosecution.

“This was not simple human error or an obscure legal mistake – this is our system of prosecution admitting that, acting with malice, there was a move to throw innocent men behind bars and destroy their reputations.”

Mr Kerr added that a full judge-led public inquiry is needed to prevent the public believing that officials are “brushing this appalling state of affairs under the carpet”

Scottish Labour justice spokesperson Rhoda Grant said: “We imagine there are checks and balances within the system between the Police and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, where both challenge and question the activities and evidence in a case.

“This appears not to have happened, or to have gone seriously wrong in this situation - with both being sued by David Whitehouse and Paul Clark.”

HeraldScotland: The Lord Advocate has apologised after £24m of public money was paid The Lord Advocate has apologised after £24m of public money was paid

She added: “How could this have happened? Were there concerns raised internally or externally about the actions of both organisations at the time, especially when it came to light there was inconsistent evidence?

“The Lord Advocate says that the system has been improved but there cannot be proper scrutiny of this until we know exactly what went wrong in the first place. Until this happens, how can he expect to restore confidence in the system?”

Scottish Greens justice spokesperson, John Finnie added: “The Lord Advocate must commit to undertaking the considerable work required to restore public confidence in Scotland’s justice system.

“The checks and balances sighted by the Lord Advocate as reasons people can have faith in the system seem to have been completely bypassed in this appalling situation. “Members of the public may understandably wonder what chance they would have of receiving justice, when such an appalling failure takes place in what was a hugely high-profile matter.”

Following the statement, Mr Whitehouse said: “The Lord Advocate today in Parliament summarised one of the most shameful episodes in Scottish legal history – an admission that innocent people were prosecuted maliciously and the taxpayer is ending up footing the multi-pound bill.

“Never before has the government’s top law officer had to admit to ‘indefensible’ actions and ‘serious failure’. I welcome his apology to me and my colleague Paul Clark but as many MSPs pointed out today in their chorus of condemnation, that when something goes seriously wrong who is at fault?

“The Lord Advocate said no-one acted out of spite but the fact remains that it was people within Crown Office that took a series of decisions that resulted in us being hauled out of our homes, falsely accused of crimes, incarcerated and prosecuted with malice. Those people should be held accountable. I firmly believe that a criminal investigation is justified.”