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:
Rufus Isaacs KC
Edward Carson KC
Patrick Hastings KC,
F. E. Smith KC
Douglas Hogg KC
William Jowitt KC,
Thomas Inskip KC,
David Maxwell-Fyfe QC,
Sir Hartley Shawcross QC,
Elwyn Jones QC
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.