Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Lord Advocate in focus over failures of Crown Office.

Can the current Lord Advocate deal with the woes of the Crown Office, which seems to get worse with every passing day ?

If the World's End trial collapse is anything to go by, and the ill advised statement to Parliament before an inquiry has been completed ... perhaps the grade has not yet been passed ...

The Scotsman reports :

Has Elish Angiolini passed her first test?


AS LORD Advocate, Elish Angiolini may not be a politician - and she would of course strongly refute any such suggestion that she was - but she does have some things in common with the elected members of the Scottish Government.

As head of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, she needs to be able to instil public confidence in the integrity of the justice system. To do this, she needs to be able to react to unforeseen events.

Since her appointment almost a year ago, Angiolini's challenges have largely stemmed from the lingering controversy surrounding an event that dogged her predecessor Colin Boyd - the former Scottish Executive's decision to settle the Shirley McKie case out of court.

While Lord Boyd has since maintained that his decision to step down shortly afterwards was not linked to the fallout from the case - but rather a desire to return to practice, which he has subsequently done with Dundas & Wilson - critics questioned whether it was appropriate for the Lord Advocate to be allowed to continue in the dual role of chief prosecutor and chief government legal adviser.

In response to such concerns, shortly after taking over, Angiolini sought to clarify the nature of the role as part of government and its statutory underpinning, and to defend the need for the Lord Advocate to sit in cabinet meetings.

When the SNP took the lead in the opinion polls, it was widely speculated that the role might be downsized, and that a new administration would bring in its own man or woman.

After winning the election, Alex Salmond made it clear he wanted the Lord Advocate shut out of routine cabinet meetings.

However, the fact that Angiolini retained the post when the solicitor general, John Beckett, QC, was replaced after the election was a measure of the respect that she had earned from across the political spectrum.

Angiolini's down-to-earth approach and her attempts to make the justice system more responsive to public concerns - especially to the opinions of victims of crime - have been widely welcomed.

She had also managed to make some progress in making a Crown Office career seem a more attractive option for experienced lawyers.

The recruitment of Derek Ogg, QC, one of Scotland's foremost criminal defence lawyers, as senior advocate depute, replacing Sean Murphy, QC, was seen as something of a coup. It is understood his move to join Crown counsel resulted from a direct approach from the Lord Advocate herself.

Yet the spectacular collapse of the World's End murder trial last week had clear potential to undermine the solid start she had made. Like Lord Boyd before her, she found herself having to defend decisions made by the Crown Office, and this time it related to one of the most high-profile cases in Scottish criminal history.

Her explanation before parliament of the decisions taken, and why some evidence was not led in court, were clear and self-assured. In her view, the Crown had sufficient evidence to build a circumstantial case, relying upon forensic evidence that showed that Angus Sinclair had sexual contact with both victims.

Her call for a debate on changing the law to allow the Crown to be able to appeal a judge's decision if a similar scenario arises again confirms the frustrations felt by prosecutors that the case w as not put to a jury.

Of course, it is now a hypothetical question as to whether jurors would have actually convicted Sinclair, as there is no guarantee that they would have found the Crown's case compelling.

Even if the principle of "double jeopardy" were scrapped and Sinclair retried, the evidence would have to be robustly tested in court. The intense publicity surrounding the case would also present problems.

Yet Angiolini has managed to strike a balance between being seen to respond to legitimate public concerns and bowing to pressure from the critics she has dubbed the "armchair commentators".

She is treading a fine line, but it seems the Lord Advocate may have passed her first real test.

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