A generally lawful guy: the Attorney General

Student Life

As leader of the Bar, chief legal advisor to the Crown and its government, superintendent of the Crown Prosecution Service and the government’s representative to the International Court of Justice, Dominic Grieve QC is surprisingly modest when describing his role. “Most government officials have no idea what the role entails…I have a tiny office, a very mini department of state.” Equally, whilst he has been integral in the legal procedure for the Hillsborough inquest, has called for a review of Nigel Evans’ acquittal on nine charges of rape and sexual assault, and is overseeing legislation in the event that Scotland becomes independent (legislation he describes as “not very well drafted”), Mr Grieve has also to decide “whether students climbing the scaffolding of Windsor Castle deserve a criminal record.”

Beyond the domestics, he is in charge of tracking the UK’s international obligations, a formidable task given that “since 1815, the UK has engaged in 13,200 treaties.” The thorn in his side at the moment seems to be Russia, “entirely oblivious of its treaties.” Along with the PM, Mr Grieve also has “to ask the Queen personally for holiday time.”

Mr Grieve is not untarnished by controversy. As a vocal advocate for human rights legislation – defending the Human Rights Act and the European Convention for Human Rights when threatened by Cameron’s proposal for a Bill of Rights – it was ironic when in June 2008 he was discovered to have been investing around £240,000 in the Mugabe regime along with six other MPs.

Furthermore, he has recently lambasted the British Humanist Association for their open letter criticizing the Prime Minister’s Easter Message. Describing this country’s atheist movements as “deluded” and yet to demonstrate any progress, his defence has called into question the extent to which the UK’s judiciary is conceived of as a Christian institution. This seems all the more disconcerting given that in May 2013, he abstained in the vote for same-sex marriage, and his comments on the “endemic” corruption in Pakistani communities, a comment which he has since apologized for.

He brings up a previous incumbent, Sir Patrick Hastings, who under PM Ramsay MacDonald in 1924 was heavily criticized for being “lent on by his political colleagues”. It was an interesting part of history to point out, given the politicization of the Attorney General is still a concern debated furiously today. It requires a great deal of trust in the person of the Attorney General to believe he can distinguish between his responsibilities to safeguard public interest and to uphold party political concerns.

It was suggested back in 2007 that the Attorney General be abolished as an office, given the disconcerting relationship its incumbents have had with the ruling political party: Mr Grieve is himself a Conservative MP for Beaconsfield. The proposal was fruitless, but Mr Grieve felt it necessary to defend his office against claims that it was “a nefarious influence” in the judiciary. Independent lawyers, in his view, are all to readily ignored by ministers, leaving them with no political traction, whilst a great deal of CPS business is inextricably linked to politics.

Addressing the cuts to legal aid, Mr Grieve argued that “justice needs to be streamlined….the edifice is collapsing.” An audience member asked whether the cuts were ideological or for efficiency’s sake, again highlighting the awkward and conflicting responsibilities represented in the Attorney General: when is Mr Grieve acting as a Tory, towing the party line, and when he’s acting as head of the civil judiciary. He states outright that there’s nothing ideological about the decision: “the economy is bankrupt…and there’s some fat in the system.”

He chuckles a charming anecdote of his halcyon days in office. “Baroness Scotland, my predecessor, gave me two pieces of advice on handing the office to me. The first piece I can’t tell you, being a highly confidential opinion on a certain individual. The second piece though was to remember to smile ever so sweetly when reminding ministers that their proposals are slightly unlawful.”

It was interesting then to ask Mr Grieve what he thought of the recent public denunciation by three senior judges of his actions as “unlawful”, having blocked the disclosure of correspondence between the Prince of Wales and government ministers.

According to Lord Dyson, Lord Justice Richards and Lord Justice Pitchford, the Attorney General’s use of his executive veto was in contravention of European commission law as well as the Freedom of Information Act. Mr Grieve believes that the disclosure of the correspondence would infringe on the Prince of Wales’ political neutrality, and hinder his ability to carry out his regal duties. “Unlawful, as in I walk around with a terrible sense of guilt? No.”

Mr Grieve’s primary concern was the precedent the disclosure would set, “changing the nature of the FOIA”, but accounts for his actions as complicated by the tribunal process, and his power as the sole individual who can legally view the correspondence, given that involve correspondence with the previous administration, a power he describes being “a lot of fun” in reality. A more definite answer as to whether the UK’s chief legal adviser is himself guilty of ‘unlawful’ behaviour is now dependent on the Supreme Court’s verdict on the debacle.

On the topic of freedom of information, he turns to address the press. Although during his time in office, the CPS had prosecuted “hardly any newspapers”, Mr Grieve does believe newspapers “must stop vilifying defendants”. He cites the way the press dealt with Christopher Jefferies in 2011, the landlord of murdered architect Joanna Yeates: “they latched on to his ‘morbid obsession’ with Christina Rossetti” as sufficient indicator of his guilt. Jefferies was subsequently released, and went on to bring libel action against eight publications. He drives the point home, in a head-masterly tone stating “we all have a responsibility to uphold the law”.

When it comes to the student press however, Mr Grieve accepts that nowhere is safe: “it doesn’t matter which students I speak to, within minutes there’s something posted by The Huffington ‘Press’”. Mr Grieve did have to correct the comment editor from the Cherwell, Nicholas Mutch during the Q&A. Asking about the dilemmas Mr Grieve faces when he prosecutes, the Attorney General had to explain the question was based “on a mistaken premise”, and reminded the journalist that fundamentally, the Attorney General does not decide prosecution.