Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Lord Advocate Angiolini one year on in the job

The Lord Advocate spills the beans on her heavy burden ... and that includes keeping the Crown Office out of the way of any reforms it would seem ...

The Scotsman reports :

'It's still fairly early days but it's working'


AS NO Lord Advocate has ever emerged from the same career path as Elish Angiolini, QC, it is ironic to note she had one of the most comprehensive apprenticeships for the job. In her long career with the Crown Office, she had the opportunity to work alongside several Lord Advocates, including Lord Mackay of Clashfern, Lord Rodger of Earlsferry, Lord Hardie and, latterly, Lord Boyd of Duncansby.

Now, a little over a year after stepping up from Solicitor General to succeed Colin Boyd as chief prosecutor and chief legal adviser to the Scottish Government, Angiolini remains at her desk in Chambers Street and reflects that, thanks to her "apprenticeship", there have been no real surprises about the pressures of the job.

However, she does confess she was both "surprised and delighted" to have been reappointed after the May elections: the first time a Lord Advocate has ever survived a change in political administration.

"There were two weeks when I stalked the lonely corridors of power as the only minister," she smiles. "I tidied my room. The natural step would have been for the Lord Advocate to be replaced by a Lord Advocate of choice from the other political party.

"I was very, very honoured and tremendously pleased that I was asked, and with a very clear understanding from Alex Salmond that the independence of this post was vital, and an understanding that it operates outwith the body politic."

While Angiolini insists her job hasn't changed "in any shape or form" since the election, there is the question of the First Minister's decision to exclude her from cabinet meetings. She notes much was made of this change, but insists it actually works well. Angiolini says attending cabinet meetings in the past allowed her to make "informal comments on the margins" that could be helpful, but she accepts the change emphasises a greater separation.

"Having the Lord Advocate not at cabinet certainly reinforces the notion of independence and the distance from the political aspects of it, but what it means is I have to be much more acutely aware of what's going on in cabinet and ensure I can anticipate what's coming up, so we can see areas where advice may be required.

"That's what's been done and it's been working. I have attended cabinet twice since the election, which was to give legal advice on specific matters and on the occasion when the World's End case took place.

"It's still fairly early days but it's working and, on that basis, I don't see any material change. The only aspect is just not seeing faces. You are more isolated but you always were. Even in the last administration, I would only be in parliament once every three weeks or so for meetings on bills as they were progressing."

Greater detachment from the inner workings of government is just another chapter in the changing role of the Lord Advocate post-devolution, she adds.

"In a sense, it's one that I think is continuing to evolve and I am not sure it's stopped yet. People talk about 'has the role changed?' It has changed in a way that has become purist than in the past, it is more monastic in its entity than it has ever been, including pre-devolution.

"Far from it being more political, it is far less political than it has ever been. I suspect that, while this has happened with my appointment, it may be a convention that in future will be continued."

If Angiolini remains on familiar ground in heading the prosecution service or offering advice to ministers at arm's length, then events - including the failed terrorist attack on Glasgow Airport and the sudden collapse of the World's End murder trial - have certainly put her to the test.

The dramatic collapse of the crown's case against Angus Sinclair threatened to undermine her own position, following the reaction to her parliamentary statement.

In an unprecedented spat, Scotland's most senior law officer became embroiled in a war of words with Scotland's most senior judge.

Lord Hamilton, the Lord President and Lord Justice General, suggested her statement to parliament had been inappropriate and was disrespectful to the trial judge.

It would be tempting for Angiolini to dismiss the furore as media hype but she accepts the press and public interest was inevitable after Lord Hamilton made his letter public.

"It was an expression of two different perspectives, from our independent positions," she says. "Obviously my position is quite different from that of the judiciary. The judiciary have institutional independence that allows them the privilege of those decisions being tested in the appeal court and nowhere else, whereas my accountability is prescribed in statute to the Scottish Parliament."

For Angiolini, the decision to make the parliamentary statement was in keeping with her desire to be as open as possible about the decisions made by prosecutors.

"I don't want to have a citadel Crown Office," she says. "I would like to have people understand better how we operate, what the constraints are and why we can't give information, because, if there is a greater understanding, on occasion it assists the process."

The case may yet have far-reaching consequences, as Angiolini suggested ministers might consider whether the crown should have a right of appeal if a similar scenario arises again. But she stresses this is not her decision to make.

The collapse of the case also threw the spotlight firmly on Alan Mackay, the advocate depute, who went missing for a short time. Angiolini says she has wider concerns about the increasingly high public profile of prosecutors.

"People who become prosecutors are brave," she says. "They are not faceless bureaucrats. They are dealing with people in situations of extreme tragedy, people who have suffered tremendous loss, or who have been violated in some horrendous way. They are dealing with that on a daily basis.

"They often have to deal with the accused who can often feel resentful or hostile towards the prosecutor. We have had incidents of prosecutors being attacked both in courts and outside courts over the last few years.

"It is not something we are paranoid about. But there does need to be a recognition that the lack of profile is helpful in a sense when you can bump into anybody, depending on what supermarket you happen to be shopping in."

In spite of such pressures, there have been some high-profile appointments to crown counsel, including Derek Ogg's confirmation as senior advocate depute. While the financial rewards are less lucrative than those on offer in private practice, Angiolini says there are many lawyers who are still committed to the interests of justice.

"It sounds clichéd and apple pie, but these are people who do care about justice and do want to make a difference," she says. "There are much richer pickings elsewhere."

"It is difficult to be a law officer, because it is a difficult area of responsibility. It is fraught. You are dealing with tragedy, the balancing of rights and in that conflict and complexity of it, there are always going to be difficulties.

"But it is a tremendously privileged position to be in, to have the opportunity to try and make a difference. The real scary thing about that is making the difference and feeling at the end that you have."

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