22 February 2011 | By Katy Dowell
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Attorney-General Dominic Grieve seems perfectly suited to balance what can be the contradictory roles of being both a lawyer and a politician.
Lawyer 2B finds out how his approach differs from those of some of his illustrious predecessors.
Attorney-General Dominic Grieve has just completed his first six months in the job. It has been a relatively smooth period, with the country preoccupied with the prospect of major public spending cuts. Yet all the departments under his supervision are being asked to tighten their belts too, and this will inevitably land him in the limelight. With responsibility for advising the Government on legal issues, the attorney-general can be called on to advise on some of the most contentious subjects before Parliament. Lord Goldsmith, for example, found himself in the unenviable position of having to advise on the legality of war in Iraq.
As the latest appointee to the role Grieve will be hoping for an easier ride, but with economic pressures on every department under his remit, it is unlikely to be plain sailing.
On the day we meet, Grieve, like many of his Coalition peers, is predictably but also frustratingly on-message. It has not been long since Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne unveiled the Comprehensive Spending Review and everyone is talking about ’efficiencies’. Grieve is no different.
“Across the spectrum it’s a 24 per cent saving over four years,” he states. “It’s challenging, but it has to be done. It’s about reviving the economy and reducing debt. My own office has slimmed down.”
In his role Grieve advises the Government on legal issues and superintends the Treasury Solicitor, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), the director of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) Richard Alderman and the Revenue and Customs Prosecutions Office.
The CPS, he says, must “maximise efficiency and deliver more effective service”, while the Treasury Solicitor must reduce budgets by 25 per cent. “But,” Grieve insists, “I have no doubt it’s cost-efficient”.
Grieve is clearly proud of the departments he supervises. The Treasury Solicitor, he says, “rarely attracts criticism for losing money. I’m confident it will be able to [make budget savings]. It’s an arm’s-length organisation with a clear and distinct remit.
“One of the things I’ve been impressed with is the legal departments at HM Revenue & Customs and the Department for Business, Skills and Innovation.”
The SFO, another organisation the Government keeps at arm’s length, is also answerable to the attorney-general. Grieve has fewer reasons to be proud of this much-maligned agency, which is drastically under-resourced, although he denies this, maintaining that “the SFO is a highly focused prosecutorial agency, working on small cases that are well-processed and successful. It’s always looking for ways to improve.”
Nevertheless, it has come in for severe criticism over the handling of its inquiries into BAE Systems. Last February the SFO settled its six-year investigation into the Europe’s largest defence company BAE after it pled guilty to minor accounting offences. The allegations against the company included accusations of bribes and supplying prostitutes to members of the Saudi Arabian royal family. In the end BAE agreed to pay £30m to the SFO after admitting accounting irregularities in a deal to sell an air traffic control system to Tanzania. The deal was subject to judicial approval.
In December, in the first major test of US-style agreements between prosecutors and defendants, Mr Justice Bean heard the trial in Southwark Crown Court. Rather than giving immediate approval, Bean J questioned the purpose of the $12.4m (£7.8m) in bribes paid by BAE to Tanzanian businessman Shailesh Vithlani between 1999 and 2005.
It looked as if BAE “didn’t want to know how much money would be paid and to whom”, the judge said at the time. “They just wanted the job done. Hear no evil, speak no evil, and so on.”
Then, in January, the Campaign Against Arms Trade and The Corner House instructed Leigh Day & Co to launch a challenge against the immunity to future prosecutions afforded to BAE as part of its deal with the SFO.
The under-resourced SFO is likely to be replaced by an Economic Crime Agency, which it is hoped will ape the US Securities and Exchange Commission in terms of its scope and powers.
Grieve says this is necessary to better stem the ever-growing flow of white-collar crime. The proposal is to bring together the enforcement capabilities of the SFO with the Office of Fair Trading and the Financial Services Authority.
“Economic crime’s becoming a major area of organised crime,” says Grieve. “For criminals, it’s better than robbing a bank.”
While the agencies under Grieve’s supervision are facing budget cuts, the legal profession is also in the midst of great change. Reductions in legal aid spending will inevitably have an impact on the sector, nowhere more so than at the publicly funded bar. There have been complaints that such cuts will impede access to justice as people on lower incomes will not be able to obtain state funding for cases. The Law Commission will have responsibility for delivering a reduced budget.
“I have every confidence that the Law Commission is sensitive to the need to commit to access to justice,” Grieve says. “There’s scope for the publicly funded bar to push up quality and be rewarded for excellence. If you deliver efficiently you’ll get the work. You can’t hide the fact that availability has masked efficiency and value.”
He is equally supportive of the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) enthusiasm for Lord Justice Jackson’s proposals for civil litigation funding reform. In November the Government launched a consultation paper on the proposal for a 10 per cent cap on success fees in conditional fee arrangements. Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said the Government would also suggest that the recoverability of uplift fees and after-the-event premiums be scrapped.
“The fact remains that the costs of the existing regime are unsustainably high, given their impact on some public bodies,” stated the MoJ document.
Grieve says the fact that legal costs can be double or treble the amount compensated is “not a satisfactory situation”. However, he does recognise that “lawyers need to be paid in recognition for the risk they are taking”.
“There’s no perfect system,” Grieve adds, evidently aware that proposals would come under fire from lawyers likely to see their pay slashed. “The point about Jackson is that it gives pragmatic ways to tackle costs.”
While he has no direct link to City firms, Grieve recognises the contribution City lawyers make to society and the fact that they, like everyone, have suffered as a result of the economic downturn.
“Law is an area where England is a world leader,” he states. “It’s beneficial to the economy and to the country’s status. The work of commercial lawyers is extraordinarily important. I recognise the commitment they make to pro bono work and I’m grateful.”
Grieve trained as a barrister and took silk in 2008. He has never had the caseload to help him break into the bar’s millionaires club (which includes Lord Grabiner, a Labour peer and member of One Essex Court, and crossbench peer Lord Pannick of Blackstone Chambers), but he does occupy a strong position in the higher echelons of politics.
Sitting on a worn-out maroon sofa in his plush office, flanked by walls of leather-bound volumes and with the fire belting out on a snowy winter’s day, Grieve’s image fits the stereotype of lawyer and politician. Yet he is much more lawyer-turned-politician and possesses the requisite personality traits - the consummate, polite professional with a trace of paranoia and the fear he may tread on the wrong toes. This is tricky, given that the attorney-general has a wide-ranging remit and comes into contact with all levels of Government.
Grieve says the attorney-general role is “fairly limited” and that he does not possess the powers of a Tory policymaker. But, he insists, he makes it his business to get involved with Parliament.
“I have a slot in the chamber once a month to answer questions,” Grieve explains. “I make it my business to know what’s happening in the chamber.”
When not debating Grieve can be found dashing around the House of Commons to various meetings.
“My life consists of a great deal of meetings and a lot of homework in my red boxes,” he says.
The attorney-general position has been criticised in the past for being a political appointment, compromising the independence of the advice provided. This was highlighted by the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq conflict, which prompted speculation about whether the former prime minister Tony Blair had pressurised Lord Goldsmith, his chief legal adviser at the time, into approving the war’s legality. Grieve says it is essential for the attorney-general to have the confidence of Parliament, a confidence that may not apply if the position were independent.
“It’s a role that combines being a lawyer and a politician,” he insists.
“It’s not an irreconcilable mix - it’s possible to ignore the politics.”
Grieve says the key is to have mutual trust. “What would the alternative be?” he asks. “Would an independent official be better able to provide independent advice? I have my doubts. That person would become isolated without the support of Government. The attorney-general’s ability to communicate is enhanced by being an MP.”
That said, Grieve concedes that his powers are not omnipotent. “If the role develops further we’d be seen as interfering with other departments,” he says. “We’re a small department with 42 staff, including 17 lawyers. It doesn’t put me in a position of policymaking.”
Steering clear of policy
Grieve is clear he wants his office to have little to do with policy, unlike some of his Labour predecessors. The former solicitor-general Vera Baird was heavily involved with the Equality Act, while Lord Goldsmith pushed through initiatives designed to combat fraud.
“As attorney-general I’d like to ensure that our law officers deliver excellent standards of service,” he says. “The attorney-general needs to be focused on their own department.”
With the Treasury imposing 24 per cent cuts on the legal budget and the Treasury Solicitor’s Department facing reductions of 25 per cent, Grieve has to juggle a lot of plates. Inevitably, as with his predecessors, there will be mistakes, and as much as he resists it he is bound to tread on the toes of some colleagues. But as a politician first and a lawyer second, Grieve reckons he is the right man to be juggling those plates.