Thursday, 17 July 2014

Judge a man by his actions not his website - Reflection on the Attorney General

Of many of the appointments made in the Cabinet Reshuffle this week two of the least publicised and celebrated have been those of the new Attorney General and the new Solicitor General.  Dominic Grieve QC MP (58), who was Attorney General, was called by Middle Temple in 1980 and specialises in health & safety law, he became a Bencher in 2005 and a Silk in 2008 when shadow Attorney General.  He was elected in Beaconsfield in 1997.  Oliver Heald QC MP (59), who was Solicitor General, was called by Middle Temple in 1977 and practised at the Bar from 1979 until 1995 when he became a minister.  He was elected in North Hertfordshire in 1992.  They were sacked on Tuesday, apparently without much warning, as it would seem they were due to attend a press briefing later that day.

Replacing them are Jeremy Wright QC MP (41) who was called in 1996 and specialised in criminal law until 2005 when elected to his seat in Rugby and Robert Buckland MP (45) who was called in 1991 practised in crime, is a Crown Court Recorder and was elected to Swindon South in 2010.  Much has been made from legal commentators and practising barristers in the hours that followed their appointment of their comparative obscurity.  Some of the commentary has been sneering and scornful; the wisdom of publicising that scorn is perhaps worth reflecting on.  The principle anxiety that has been articulated is that the Prime Minister has deliberately appointed two very young and comparatively inexperienced Law Officers for their pliability particularly in regard to undefined and as yet unannounced Government plans to renegotiate Britain’s membership of or submission to the European Court of Human Rights.

It has been reported that Dominic Grieve and others  counselled the Prime Minister about embarking on such a course.  If this is indeed the intention I will add my voice to the swiftly swelling ranks of those who are illuminating and delineating some obvious perils that lie ahead.  Obvious to lawyers it is perhaps not so clear to politicians that if you as an individual, entity or country submit to the jurisdiction of a court then you agree to submit to its rulings.  That, of course, pertains whether the court rules in your favour or against you.

If as a country you choose that you no longer wish to submit to a supra-national court’s rulings then you have one option: leave.  The Prime Minister will not propose such a course for two reasons.  The first is that he lacks the political courage for such a stark and bold move.  The second is that he will be well aware of the withering international reaction to a mature democracy, supposedly with the highest regard for the Rule of Law, announcing to the world that because of pique over a few court rulings it wants to withdraw into its shell.  Such a withdrawal would be a repudiation of the notion that the safeguarding of human rights is something that transcends borders and small-minded concerns over sovereignty.

This is an opportune moment to pay tribute to Dominic Grieve who was an assiduous attender at Bar Council meetings even when he was the lightning conductor for the Bar’s anger over cuts to Legal Aid.  He took his role as Leader of the Bar extremely serious as he did all of his responsibilities in the office of Attorney General.  Some have remarked on his voting record which accorded with the Government’s legislative programme.  There is no question that in some quarters it was felt that he could have been even more vocal in warning and working to stop some of the Government’s disastrous reforms in their tracks.  However it is difficult conceive how uncomfortable it must be to have a representative role in the legal profession while at the same time attending Cabinet when the Government and lawyers are at loggerheads.  Necessarily the most important persuading and cajoling takes place out of sight.

If reports of the background to his dismissal are correct then nobody should doubt that he is a man of integrity who, when called upon to sanction heedless political opportunism over hard won safeguards to the Rule of Law, showed his true colours. 

Thus one turns to the newcomers.  Youth is not a synonym for inability.  It would be crass of me to observe that as chairman of the Young Barristers’ Committee I have more practising experience than the new Attorney  General because of itself that proves nothing.  Obscurity is no bar to achieving repute and respect.  Much mockery has focussed on the new Attorney General’s chambers profile and his self-professed familiarity with video links.  The day a barrister’s worth is judged by the hyperbole of his self-publicised qualities is a truly bleak day.  A barrister of genuine integrity ought not demean himself with puffery and advertising and it is a reflection of the age in which we live that we all submit to this diminishing practice.  I judge a man on his actions not his chambers’ website.

I do not believe it to be right that with the now well established mechanism in place for Queen’s Counsel Appointments that the Law Officers should be awarded Silk as a courtesy title.  Silk is won by a rigorous process of examination and scrutiny now and it is no more right that a Government job should carry Silk as a perquisite than it would be to award a Phd.  If the Government chooses to select a junior as a Law Officer that should be clearly stated and understood.

If the Government’s reported intentions are true then this will be a fantastically fraught time to occupy these ancient offices.  Our responsibility as members of the Bar is to support the new Law Officers in their inestimably important responsibility of upholding the Rule of Law.  If they betray that responsibility through action or inaction then they can be judged, not just by us but by every human being whose worth and rights is jeopardised through political expediency.  Until that happens, as every juror should, I am keeping an open mind.

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