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As the debate over independence rages in the corridors of Holyrood, Murray Sinclair, solicitor to the Scottish government, must rise above the politics to ensure the legal work of government runs smoothly. By Margaret Taylor
It has been an exciting 12 months in Scottish politics. Almost exactly a year after Alex Salmond’s Scottish National Party (SNP) won minority control of the country’s devolved government, Scottish Labour leader Wendy Alexander has sounded her support for a referendum on independence, challenging Salmond to “bring it on”.
For Murray Sinclair, solicitor to the Scottish Government, though, political allegiances are irrelevant, with Holyrood’s theatrics having no bearing on the day-to-day working life of his 120-lawyer team.
“We provide a full range of legal services to the Scottish Government, dealing with all the functions that relate to a devolved Scotland as well as some others,” explains Sinclair.
“The Scotland Act 1998 set up the devolved Scottish Parliament and Government and there are some functions that Scottish ministers do in relation to reserved matters that are handled in Westminster, such as railways. We provide legal services on that basis and the core of the work is very much public law.” For Sinclair, government legal work is a way of life. Although he trained with Scottish giant Dundas & Wilson - now positioned as a UK rather than a Scottish player - he moved into the then Scottish Office soon after qualification.
“I decided that I wanted a change and went into the Scottish Office, where I did DTI [Department of Trade and Industry] work,” he says. “That involved a lot of court work: I did some disqualification of company directors to begin with, then I moved over to criminal justice work. Before devolution there were generally just one or two Scottish bills at Westminster per session.”
Sinclair then moved on to a role that helped pave the way for the creation of his current job, joining the Scottish Office’s development team.
“I worked on the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Act 1997 first, then moved on to the Scotland Act, putting together the written constitution for a devolved Scotland,” he says. “Following devolution I was promoted to head of division, which is similar to partner level. I had between eight and 10 lawyers and Name: Murray SinclairOrganisation: Scottish Government Legal DirectoratePosition: Solicitor to the Scottish GovernmentSector: Central GovernmentReporting to: Robert Gordon, Director-General Justice and Communities, Scottish GovernmentEmployees: 120 lawyers, 42 non-lawyersAnnual legal spend: Costs for counsel and outsourced legal work are met by client departments/agenciesMain law firms: Anderson Strathern, Brodies, DLA Piper, Dundas & Wilson, Harper Macleod, Maclay Murray & Spens, Morton Fraser and Pinsent MasonsMurray Sinclair’s CVEducation:1979-82: University of Oxford, LLB (with distinction)1982-85: University of Edinburgh, Diploma in Legal PracticeWork history:1985-88: Trainee solicitor, then assistant solicitor, Dundas & Wilson1989-99: Solicitor at the Scottish Office, then Scottish Government1999-2007: Divisional solicitor, Scottish Government2007-present: Solicitor to the Scottish Governmentsome support staff working with me, and I focused on environment, transport, housing, local government and planning.”
Last year Sinclair replaced Richard Henderson, now president of the Law Society of Scotland, as solicitor to the Scottish Government, and in his new role he remains focused on these same key issues.
“It may seem odd that people can move from housing to planning, but it’s not really because it’s still ministers performing functions under statute,” argues Sinclair.
“We have to be experts in human rights law and EU law. A lot of the work my department delivers is the subordinate legislation for the bills that eventually become acts, such as the bill that banned smoking in public places.”
Although Sinclair’s team does not actually draft the bills - that is done by Scottish parliamentary council draftsmen - it is involved in instructing them.
“We help develop policy and articulate it,” he says. “The principal job of a parliamentary drafter is coming up with the words for the acts - we say what the policy should do and they come up with the words.
“It will be rare for me now to be directly involved in a bill but I like to make sure that I’m informed of what’s going on. I’ll be aware of them all, but I won’t micromanage them.”
While the Scottish Government does have a panel of law firms, the bulk of its legal work is handled in-house. Last May TheLawyer.com reported that Sinclair’s predecessor Henderson cut the Scottish Government’s (then known as the Scottish Executive) legal panel from 12 firms to eight (3 May 2007).
Anderson Strathern, Brodies, DLA Piper, Dundas & Wilson, Harper Macleod, Maclay Murray & Spens, Morton Fraser and Pinsent Masons now make up the panel.
“The panel was renewed just before I took over but core legal work is done in-house,” says Sinclair. “There are areas where it would be more appropriate to go outside, such as for commercial work, and we run tender processes for particular projects.”
While, for obvious reasons, Sinclair must keep his political colours very close to his chest, the secrecy card is one he is more than willing to play.
“The interesting thing about the work of lawyer in government is that it’s intellectually challenging while very practical and of real value at the end of the day,” he adds. n