Committee calls for attorney general role to be abolished

The “ancient office” of the attorney general is “not sustainable”, a report by the Constitutional Affairs Committee alleged today (19 July).

The committee has called for reforms to restore public confidence in the attorney general.

The move comes following the several controversial decisions made over the BAE Systems fraud and the ‘cash for peerages’ investigations.

The committee stated that the investigations “compromised or appeared to compromise” the position of the attorney general and raised serious concerns about the independence and impartiality of the office.

The report concluded that “allegations of political bias, whether justified or not, are almost inevitable given the Attorney General’s seemingly contradictory positions… This situation is not sustainable.”

The “status quo is not an option” the committee said and suggested that the office should be reformed so that “Parliament and the public can be clear about the basis on which decisions are taken”.

The report suggested that purely legal functions could be carried out by a “career lawyer”, not a political appointee, politician or member of government.

The ministerial functions should be carried out by a minister in the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).

The minister of justice would instructs the independent head of the prosecution service on matters of public interest, while the secretary of state for justice would be accountable to Parliament.

The committee questioned former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith’s claim for a lawyer needing to be at the heart of government.

It held that “the inept handling” of constitutional reform and the secretive process of establishing the MoJ showed that the presence of lawyers was “seemingly ineffective”.

Liberal Democrat MP Alan Beith and the committee chair said public confidence in the present system has been affected significantly by the issues around the attorney general’s legal advice concerning the Iraq war along with the BAE inquiry and the cash for honours row.

“The heart of the problem of the attorney general’s role at present is the need for real and perceived independence in giving legal advice to government,” explained Beith. “It’s good that Gordon Brown and the newly appointed attorney general have indicated their interest in reform, and I hope they’ll see this as the right direction to take.”