Wednesday, July 24, 2024

BARRISTER MAGAZINE

Read the Barrister Magazine, a fantastic legal resource for online News, Articles & Information for Barristers in the UK. Keep abreast of Law Articles, Find a Barrister, Subscribe to our Articles on the Latest Legal News, Legal Services, Law Events, Expert Witnesses & Barrister Services. Its all here, ready to educate, inspire & Inform

A steady and sure hand after some turbulence!

Latest PostA steady and sure hand after some turbulence!

An interview with the Attorney General for England and Wales, Rt Hon Victoria Prentis KC MP

By Phillip Taylor MBE, Richmond Green Chambers, Reviews editor, “The Barrister”

Remember that old chestnut, when Sir Patrick Hastings declared “to be a law officer is to be in hell”. Well, it’s probably outdated a century later (we hope).  However, readers of “The Barrister” might be interested to hear how our current Attorney General, Victoria Prentis KC MP, might respond to this view of her job as we approach the next general election.  But the deal is you will have to read my entire article first to find out the answer.

It was a hot, hot day in mid-June with the Temple Church’s annual service to celebrate the sealing of magna carta. I was able to interview Victoria in her office in the Commons off the central lobby.  Outside whilst queuing, the usual noise greets the visitors, whistles, shouting abuse and general mayhem- true democracy, in fact, and we would not have it any other way as upholders of the rule of law.

In English legal history, the first identified holder of the office of Attorney was one William de Boneville from 1277-1278. It’s almost certain there were previous professional attorneys (or equivalents) hired to represent the King’s interests in court from 1243 but they remain unrecorded.  Monarchs, like most sensible clients, need a legal adviser even when they don’t want to take the advice they are given.

And in the modern era, the Attorney is one of the Law Officers of the Crown. Victoria has been the Attorney for England and Wales since October 2022.  Previously she held the post of Minister of State for Work and Welfare for a short time in the autumn of 2022. Before that as Minister of State for Farming, Fisheries and Food (February 2020 – September 2022). The early bag carrying jobs were as a Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to junior ministers in the Department for Transport and as PPS to the Leader of the House of Commons.  The range of duties reflects a political variety in the Commons which some previous Attorneys did not have.  And Victoria comes from a political and farming family.  Her father is Lord Tim Boswell of Aynho, who was MP for Daventry from 1987-2010.

Her deputy known as the Solicitor General is currently Michael Tomlinson KC MP for Mid Dorset and North Poole.  Both the Attorney and Solicitor General are normally appointed from the ranks of practising barristers and MPs. They serve as the chief legal advisers to the Crown and to the Government in England and Wales. The Attorney is also the head of the English Bar presiding over our annual meetings which are normally sparsely attended.  It is fair to say that the role of Attorney General is not merely a “figurehead” as some have suggested, as Victoria is active and deeply interested in our profession.

THE BANBURY CONSTITUENCY

It’s a bit of a tradition for “The Barrister” to profile the head of the English Bar.  This summer, it was the turn of Victoria Prentis, who has been the Member of Parliament for Banbury, in Oxfordshire, since 2015. Once described as a “disagreeably wooded county”, which it isn’t, Oxford is where I cut my own political teeth some 40 years ago as a councillor.  Beautiful Banbury is well known, of course, for the fine lady riding her white horse at Banbury Cross (Lady Fiennes). The constituency is no longer as rural as it used to be after boundary changes with a much higher urban setting today. As with much of Oxfordshire, there is the mixture of farming and industry, and academia, plus Chipping Norton. So where does the Attorney fit into this mixture? We start with the plight of the Young Bar.

 

Victoria Prentis was educated in Malvern, at Royal Holloway and at Cambridge where she was taught by the brilliant Downing law Don, the late Professor John Hopkins, known fondly to many law students. John holds a special place in many students’ hearts for his special approach to teaching law and Victoria benefited from his wise counsel. “Our profession should reflect the society around us” says Victoria, with “equal access to the law as assisted by equal access to careers in law” being at the heart of what advocates do with first class training in both vocational and academic areas. This includes diversity as an important priority of the Independent Bar.

 

We talked specifically about the Junior Bar and fees. “It is a Treasury matter”, she rightly declares, but “I have very good relations with the Bar Council, and I have just had a recent meeting with its chairman, Nick Vineall KC”, said Victoria, who presses our case with vigour.  Legal fees for public work will always be a Treasury matter of course but we can rest assured that proper remuneration will be pursued with Whitehall. I felt Victoria, like our previous Attorneys, would push our case for extra cash very hard as head of the Bar, especially for younger barristers.  Her role is a position she clearly relishes and treats with great importance and respect, as are her relations with the Bar Council, the Law Society, and the Cabinet. Sadly, the problem remains that both the type of work and the money issues present problems for new barristers just starting out as the profession changes whilst the costs of qualifying remain high.

 

The background of the current Attorney is very much that of a public law barrister schooled in the traditions of the civil service. Victoria is very well suited to her current role as the government lawyer because of her legal experience at the Bar.  Called to the Bar in 1995, Victoria’s pupillage was with Lord (Ian) Burnett, the retiring Lord Chief Justice, and Dominic Grieve, a former Attorney General- brilliant choices! She began her career as counsel but was quickly accepted at the Government Legal Department (GLD) (previously Service) after the usual lengthy wait for a reply to her application.  “It was really a continuation of the type of briefs for government work which my pupil master (Ian Burnett) did”, she says. “I was a public law litigator for seventeen years, working where judicial review actually happens”, which must make Victoria uniquely qualified for the role of Attorney as we approach the general election.

 

THE WAR IN UKRAINE

 

“The Homes for Ukraine project scheme been a huge success” says Victoria. This humanitarian scheme allowed the British people to open their homes to the people fleeing the war in Ukraine. Many practising barristers have participated in the project unselfishly, including Victoria and her family. It’s a splendid tribute to the great traditions of the Bar to realise how many colleagues have followed the Attorney’s lead in this noble gesture.

 

We also spoke of her work to bring about accountability for the atrocities committed in Ukraine. The UK has been training the prosecutors and judges who are currently conducting war crimes trials as the war rages on. Victoria herself visited Ukraine earlier this year where she met President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whom she called “a dynamo.”

 

 

 

LAW TOURS AND THE CIRCUITS

 

“The work done on the circuits is critically important”, says Victoria, “to avoid the London-centric view which some hold of the legal profession”. To date, the Attorney has visited many parts of the country, including the Northeast, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland “and there are more tours to come” she says enthusiastically. To use our expression, “for the avoidance of doubt”, under Victoria’s watch there is a strong dialogue at circuit level and the circuits remain sustainable after some contrary suggestions about their usefulness in the recent past.

 

UNDULY LENIENT SENTENCING

 

The government continues to press for increases in unduly lenient sentences with the Solicitor General playing the lead role, often in court. Grossly or unduly lenient sentences have emerged as one developing issue of significance for the Attorney General’s Office.  There has been considerable success in appealing low sentencing tariffs recently.  However, the role of, and appointments to, the Sentencing Council remains controversial. The main issue – who appoints these policy makers, and do we have coherent representative involvement remain unanswered? There are rumours that the role of All Party Parliamentary groups may be widened so watch this space.

 

 

PUBLIC LEGAL EDUCATION (PLE)

 

One question raised each time with the Attorney is the future of public legal education as “ignorance of the law is no excuse”. How often is that phrase thrown at people? Frankly, far too often, as readers of “The Barrister” will probably recall, uncomfortably, from their past cases! The problem remains a need for a new PLE initiative which Victoria recognises, even at basic levels, as we begin the new legal year for 2023-24 – the last session of this parliament from November 2024. But things are changing quickly to plug the void of ignorance over “the Law”. This phrase “public legal education” (bit of a tongue-twister) is, we think, now more familiar to a much wider group of the public since access to legal aid was cut amid the expanding digital, e-reader world, and the ever-invasive internet.

 

END NOTE

 

With Victoria as Attorney, there has been a welcome strengthening of stability at the Bar guided by her a steady and sure hand.  It comes with the turbulence within the Conservative party during this parliament- a reference, if needed, to significant dramas not of parliament’s making since 2019.  I conclude that it is certainly not the case that being the Attorney is “to be in hell” whilst Victoria is at its head. She is not afraid to give proper advice to her client: our government.  But it comes with the turf- thank you for what you do for us.

 

Phillip Taylor MBE, Richmond Green Chambers, Reviews editor, “The Barrister”

Check out our other content

Most Popular Articles

Translate »