Jeremy Wright is the least distinguished attorney general for two centuries

The role of Attorney-General is an important one.

Constitutionally the Attorney-General is the Monarch’s lawyer.

As the Government’s chief legal adviser he (there has so far only been one female Attorney-General, Patricia Scotland QC), in practical terms responsible for providing legal advice on matters of vital national importance. Many will remember how Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney-General under Tony Blair first advised that an attack on Iraq would be illegal and then, amidst a maelstrom of political pressure, revised his opinion. Whether he was right or wrong matters not. His advice gave the green light to the 2003 invasion of Iraq by British forces. Had he continued to advise that an attack was unlawful it is probable that Britain would not have become involved in that particular adventure.

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.

More mundanely, though almost as important, the Attorney-General is obliged to oversee all prosecutions, and has a vital role in authorising certain particularly sensitive ones. In the past Attorney-Generals regularly prosecuted high-profile criminal trials, especially poisonings, and traditionally – though unfairly – were permitted to have both the first and the last word with the jury, an advantage that helped to hang the cream of British poisoners during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. That is a tradition that seems to have lapsed, although it was very much to the credit of the recently sacked Dominic Grieve QC that he would regularly appear in the Court of Appeal to argue his own cases.

Almost all previous Attorney-Generals (or should that be Attorneys-General?) have been barristers of exceptional distinction. Those who enjoy fantasy cricket could make a formidable team out of twentieth century British Attorneys-General:

  1. Rufus Isaacs KC

  2. Edward Carson KC

  3. Patrick Hastings KC,

  4. F. E. Smith KC

  5. Douglas Hogg KC

  6. William Jowitt KC,

  7. Thomas Inskip KC,

  8. David Maxwell-Fyfe QC,

  9. Sir Hartley Shawcross QC,

  10. Elwyn Jones QC

  11. Sam Silkin QC

That would be a line-up that could take on Australia with some confidence, and each of the four top batsmen would be candidates for the title of greatest English advocates of all time.

Dominic Grieve would not quite have made it into the first team though he might have made the touring party as a promising youngster. Still, he is a distinguished and courageous lawyer. He has argued the case for the Human Rights Act against the majority in the Conservative Party who wish to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights and has needed courage to do so. One of the reasons that he has been an independent voice within government is that like all his predecessors he demonstrably has the ability and experience to succeed at the bar.

I do not like to be rude about individuals but the same cannot be said for the man whom David Cameron has appointed as his successor, Jeremy Wright. Called in 1996 he has practised as a criminal barrister and for all I know did so very successfully. It is easy to mock the sort of puffery that barristers indulge in these days, and are encouraged to indulge in by the ever more insistent marketing managers. Plodding hacks like Barristerblogger are expected to preen themselves and spin the facts to present practices consisting mainly of defending second-rate paedophiles, third-rate fraudsters and dull-as-ditchwater drug users as though we were actually legal superstars like George Carman. Few are taken in.

Nevertheless Mr Wright’s proud boast on his chambers website that:

Jeremy’s experience includes high-value frauds and cases involving a video link” suggests a practice so risibly insubstantial for an Attorney-General that it quite takes ones breath away.

Almost all criminal barristers at least pretend to be interested in fraud. At a time when incomes are steadily falling, fraud offers at least some prospect of temporary relief from the bank manager.

Mr Wright offers just one example of a “high-value fraud” in which he was involved. It is the case of R v. Marfe, an exceptionally dull, though admittedly large, alleged VAT fraud involving mobile phones in which Mr Wright was a junior prosecution counsel in 2001. He does not even reveal whether he was successful, and the result of the case seems to be of so little importance that I was unable to locate it on google: perhaps Mr Marfe has exercised his right to be forgotten, perhaps he was triumphantly acquitted despite the best efforts of young Mr Wright and his leader or perhaps the case was so uninteresting to everyone except Mr Wright, and presumably Mr Marfe, that its outcome was not even reported at the time.

As for the boast that his experience includes “cases involving a video link” all one can say is, so what? Video links for vulnerable witnesses – whether children, complainants in sex cases, the elderly or even the unusually nervous – are now so ubiquitous, and have been for at least the last decade, that there can hardly be a single barrister practising at the criminal bar who does not have at least some experience with a video link (although strangely enough “high value frauds”, Mr Wright’s other speciality, are the sort of cases where video links are least used).

It may well be, of course, that Mr Wright’s practice is actually a good deal more interesting than his website suggests. Perhaps he is just not very good at keeping it updated. Or perhaps he has been so busy climbing the greasy political pole that he hasn’t had time to take his fraud and video-link expertise to new heights.

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that unlike all his predecessors within living memory Mr Wright has not been accorded the title of Queen’s (or King’s) Counsel.

Does that matter?

Yes it does. An Attorney-General needs to have the weight and gravitas to be able to stand up to the government and say “you may want to do this, politically it may be the right thing to do, but it is unlawful.” Without that gravitas, the government will just ignore him.

Moreover, the Attorney-General needs to have the independence to feel strong enough to give the unpalatable advice in the first place. If his position and status depend entirely upon patronage rather than his legal ability and reputation he will never have that independence. He will be a political apparatchik, not an independent counsel.

Sadly, the appointment of Mr Wright seems to fit a pattern with this government. Mr Grayling was the first Lord Chancellor without legal qualifications. His success has not been universally acknowledged. Mr Wright seems, at the moment at least, to be the least distinguished Attorney-General that we have ever had.

The new cabinet now lacks any substantial legal figures. 

It is shame to sound sour however. Whatever misgivings one may have I hope Mr Wright proves them wrong. We must hope that he grows quickly into his new job.

Author: Matthew

I have been a barrister for over 25 years, specialising in crime. You may also have come across some of my articles I have written on legal issues for The Times, Standpoint, Daily Telegraph or Criminal Law & Justice Weekly

21 thoughts on “Jeremy Wright is the least distinguished attorney general for two centuries”

  1. Spectacularly inapposite timing – on the day Alan Moses excoriates Grayling, Brennan et al for ultra vires discrimination, the AG, the man whose very role it will be to give the unpalatable advice that “you cannot do this”, is replaced by a junior hack with no proper experience, qualifications or legal gravitas / reputation. Sums up this coalition of opportunistic ideologues and yes men.

    1. Probably because I wrote post at midnight after a day in court. However I’ll leave him with his handle and let him be wicket-keeper. I think Carson could be captain, a role he would perform in the style of Douglas Jardine, and F E Smith would be the divisive KP character, brilliant but deeply unpopular.

      As you point out, they’re all knights & no doubt soon it’ll be Sir Jeremy too.

  2. Oddly enough I was recently trying to convince Dominic Grieve of his duties as the Monarch’s lawyer. He fell back to the jobsworth position (Section 13 Coroners Act 1988) which he clearly thinks represents his government lackey job description.

    It is a case called Matron Mary McGill Decd. Mary was a New Zealander working 143 duty hours per week free as volunteer residential matron at the Sue Ryder Home Cavendish. She was reported as drowned in the home lake January 1972. A secret inquest sat within the Sue Ryder Home 3 days later and returned a suicide verdict. A week later the body was cremated on some sort of assumed authority of Sue Ryder. It was a week after the cremation that the New Zealand family first found the truth. Their sister had drowned (They were misled by Ryder’s telegrams that death was natural causes) there had been an inquest and there had only been a part autopsy with no forensic analysis.

    The New Zealand Govt (Take note Privy Council Judicial Cttee ?) applied to Home Office in March 1972 for guidance on re-opening the inquest. The Home Office together with Suffolk Chief constable fobbed off the NZ Govt with an offer of a report.

    This report demonstrably lies to the NZ Govt and even attributes one lie to HM Coroner Bury St Edmunds !.

    Questions were raised in the Commons in 1972 by Shadow Minister Barbara Castle. Other West Suffolk care issues were raised too. Minister Keith Joseph refused full care inquiries into child deaths, in Hackney Social Services care, at The Beeches Ixworth and refused inquiry into care at the Sue Ryder Home. Even after a second drowning incident there in July 1972 (Inmate facedown in bath which also got a suicide verdict).

    Dominic Grieve was determined to block access to High Court for the Matron McGILL suicide quashing application. Ironically in subsequent weeks the press has featured both Keith Joseph (Butler Schloss inquiry) and Airey Neave (Trustee Sue Ryder charity) got a Utopia mention.

    At the time of Sue Ryder and Airey Neave involvement in a release scheme 1971 of German held WW2 internees there was a Welsh Regional Crime Squad inquiry that escalated to look at care home deaths and GP death registration practices. The suspicion being this was a vehicle for UK identity thefts. The RCS Det sgt died (yes a third suicide verdict for you).

    The RCS found that elements of the Home Office were orchestrating Forces Special Branch liaison to spy on lawful police inquiries.

    My position is that as a rural beat Pc I was appointed HM Coroners Officer for Matron McGill but promptly removed when I called in CID and wanted to secure photos of the body bruising. Since a constable is sworn to the Queen and exercises independent Crown Authority then isn’t the Attorney General the Queen’s man to ensure primacy of Judiciary. Let me say my piece to a Judge in open court not to the likes of Grieve who can and does keep it secret.

    So in this case Crown, Commonwealth under the same Queen fount of justice and MI5 all have an aspect. Dominic appeased the secret squirrels in my opinion so not at all sorry to see him on his way.

    1. Card2, your comment was very interesting but I fear slightly off the point. More importantly I’m a bit worried about libel so I’m afraid I’ve reluctantly decided not to publish it. Your point was that you do not share the high regard for Dominic Grieve that I have expressed.

  3. Somewhat speculative this, but is there not an argument that in accepting HMG’s instructions the new AG will be in breach of the BSB Code of Conduct? Rule C21.8 provides:

    “You must not accept instructions to act in a particular matter if … you are not competent to handle the particular matter or otherwise do not have enough experience to handle the matter”

    1. Yes, others have made the same point. It would be interesting if a member ofthe public were to complain to the Bar Standards Board.

      That said, I’ve no reason to suppose that Jeremy Wright is not competent to do the job. I just think that there are others who would have been able to give weightier advice than him.

  4. Knew Jeremy Wright when I was chairman of Warwick Uni Tories and he was Chairman of Warwick and Leamington Conservatives, he is a very pleasant, shrewd man and if he does not go down well with the ridiculously pompous top end of the London commercial bar then all to the good, as a provincial criminal barrister he has experience of what the majority of barristers work involves. I would also argue he is just as qualified as some recent holders of the post like Baroness Scotland and unlike Lord Goldsmith is unlikely to give dubious advice on the case for a war killing millions

  5. It is no longer possible to combine a successful practice at the Inner Bar with a seat in the House, not least because of the “family-friendly” hours nonsense. We will probably never see at A-G who is QC, MP again.

  6. Matthew – have had a very similar experience as Social Services Training Officer to Card2’s comment re. Abuse cover-up via Coroner/inquest suppression in Norfolk. Please can you ask Card2 to contact me ? Many thanks. sunnykc@live. – Mob. 07929 261422

  7. Which Civil Service/Parliamentary/Local Govt./Legal Officers & Departments have the power to order inquest to not be held or to be held other than in Coroner’s Court or to be held in camera/ otherwise kept secret ?

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