Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Law Officers of the Crown

Prime Minister David Cameron has reorganised his government.  "Reshuffle" is the more usual word but this is hardly a "reshuffle" - more like a cull.  New faces, including a considerable number of women, have been appointed to Ministerial Office.  Shakespeare's play Henry VI Part II contained the line - 'The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.'  Well, they may not have been killed but the reorganisation will have certainly made them less influential within government.

Both of the Law Officers of the Crown have been replaced - (for their roles, see Attorney General's Office website).   Attorney-General Dominic Grieve has been replaced by Jeremy Wright.  Solicitor General Oliver Heald is replaced by Robert Buckland.  Interestingly, Mr Buckland is (or has been) Chair of the Conservative Human Rights Commission.

There can be little doubt that Mr Grieve was highly regarded as a lawyer and as a fearless Attorney-General.  A very good analysis of Mr Grieve's performance as Attorney-General is at Head of Legal Blog - Dominic Grieve as Attorney-General: 2010-14.   Grieve was called to the Bar in 1980
and became Queen's Counsel in 2008.  He served many years in the shadow role of Attorney-General and, for a time, was also shadow Lord Chancellor.  He was generally seen as being in favour of the UK remaining a party to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and, in relation to the prisoner voting issue, he strongly advocated that the UK must abide by its international obligations.  (Here is what I wrote at the time). 

Mr Wright was called to the Bar in 1996 and specialised in criminal law in the Midlands until his election to Parliament in 2005. He remains a member of No.5 Chambers in Birmingham but is officially listed as non-practising as of May 2013.  It is no disrespect to note that Mr Wright's CV is particularly lightweight compared to the many who have become Attorney-General in the past.  In a post on the Barrister Blog, Matthew Scott argues that Mr Wright is the least distinguished Attorney General for 200 years.  It remains to be seen whether this matters too much.  That will depend on the legal questions arising during Mr Wright's time in office. As Scott argues - 

'Many of the government’s legal problems arise unexpectedly but some can be anticipated. To take just one example, should Scotland vote for independence in September, the legal and constitutional complications that will arise will be profound and it will require an Attorney-General of exceptional expertise to steer a safe course through them.'

For an article in similar vein, see A View from the North 16th July

In an article in The Guardian -Grieve departure softens loss of legal-aid case for Grayling - Joshua Rozenberg argues that -

The disappointment among left-leaning activists and commentators at the sacking of the law officers ... was compounded once it seemed clear that Chris Grayling would be keeping his role as lord chancellor and justice secretary. His position as the Conservatives' leading opponent of the European court of human rights is enhanced now that Grieve is no longer able to provide any sort of counterbalance within government.

Indeed, on his departure from office, Grieve has commented on the possibility that withdrawal from the ECHR would make it impossible for the UK to remain in the EU - The Guardian 15th July ... 

The sacked attorney general has warned that any attempt by Eurosceptic Conservatives to get the UK to withdraw from the European court of human rights will make it difficult for Britain to remain in the EU.  In an interview with the Guardian, Dominic Grieve, the MP who has been responsible for providing legal advice to the cabinet for the past four years, cautioned about the political consequences of quitting the Strasbourg court. "If you withdraw from the court, you withdraw from the Council of Europe [and the European convention of human rights]," Grieve said. "It's difficult to see how the UK can be a member of the EU if it's not adherent to the principles set out in the convention."


In 2007, there was a consultation on the  role of the Attorney-General - HERE - and the Select Committee on the Constitution reported on reform - 7th report of 2007-8.   Interesting as all this was, the office appears to have survived any major reform -  Joshua Rozenberg - The Guardian 27th May 2010 - Queen's Speech: reforming the role of the attorney general.  In the current political climate there seems to be little appetite for reform: rather, there seems to be a desire to replace those lawyers within government who have sympathies with the UK remaining within the ECHR or the EU.


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