What the modern Solicitor General does as a government officer in 2015. An interview with Robert Buckland QC and Member of Parliament

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It seemed appropriate to find out a bit about the work of the Solicitor General in the new government so I asked Robert Buckland for an interview to talk about his role, his hopes for the future and his experience as one of the younger members of the government. And this is the result!

As the newly re-appointed Solicitor General for England and Wales, he agreed to be interviewed by “The Barrister” after the General Election in May 2015 which has resulted in a majority Conservative government for some years, and also the possibility of some dramatic changes in the political landscape following this victory now that we have five-year parliaments.  So what does the current Solicitor General actually do and who is he?

The Current Solicitor-General

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The current Solicitor is Robert Buckland QC, the Conservative MP for Swindon South who was first elected in 2010 having won the seat from the Labour Party. He succeeded Oliver Heald MP on 15th July 2014 which is St Swithin’s Day and we did discuss the issue of whether it was raining that day or not (it wasn’t). And, as it happened, I interviewed him one year later and it also did not rain so the omens looked good.

Buckland has fought a number of elections and by-elections in the past so he comes to Parliament with a substantial campaigning track-record.  He is a well-known supporter of Britain’s membership of the European Union so that probably gives the reader a good indication at the outset of where he stands politically even if you read his parliamentary biography and see the range of interests mentioned. In the Commons he was elected as a member of the Justice Select Committee, and he chaired the all-party group on Autism between 2011 and 2014 amongst other matters.  So it is fair to say that he spent much of his backbench parliamentary life involved in legal matters prior to his appointment which is why he can to the PM’s attention.

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My interview began with his legal work prior to the new appointment. He practised as a barrister from 1992-2010 and specialised in criminal law, being appointed as a Recorder in the Crown Court in 2009.  He took silk in 2014 and is a Bencher of Inner Temple. As Solicitor General he does appear regularly in court as does the Attorney General although I did not explore specific cases during this profile interview.

The office of Solicitor General is a not well known office although he acts as deputy to the Attorney General who has the more prominent role. In fact little is really known of the role of the two Law Officers particularly that of the Solicitor so Robert more than obliged with a bit of its history which stretches back to Tudor times!

Most of us, as constitutional lawyers, will refer back to two books from our days as law students for a clue as to the role of the Law Officers: Rodney Brazier’s excellent and contemporary “Ministers of the Crown” (1997) and the even earlier, J Edwards “The Law Officers of the Crown” (1964).

The reality of these two appointments is now rather different as they appear to be the family lawyers for the ‘Government family’. Brazier describes the ancient offices as “ministerial in character” setting the date of the office of Solicitor-General from 1515 on the authority of no less a legal luminary than Sir William Anson in his definitive work “The Law and Custom of the Constitution” (1907). So that date is what we agreed in during the interview although we do not have anything more specific.

Law Officers as Active Politicians

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For some considerable time in the modern era the two government Law Officers are active politicians, albeit ones who are charged with these special ministerial duties which rank as most fascinating givers of legal advice to such a rare client (the Cabinet).  Buckland’s office can be traced back to what is seen as its first recognised holder, Sir John Port around 1514-1515.  Port was involved later in the trials of Thomas More and Anne Boleyn so the post is mostly Tudor in its early development.  So, at the time of writing, the Solicitor is commemorating the anniversary of the creation of the role some 500 years ago and I wished him a very happy anniversary.

What immediately becomes quite noticeable when interviewing Buckland is the approach which the Law Officers are required to adopt and have developed over the centuries. They have performed some delicate duties which have been devolved upon them: ‘tricky’ would appear to be the word.

Such duties have led to the need to achieve a balance between the political ticket they have been elected on in the Commons and the legal responsibility to give the government of the day ‘the bad news’ when the occasion demands it, which can be quite frequent without going into specific cases.

And this is where Robert Buckland comes in. He has that refreshing and enthusiastic approach to his work which is why David Cameron appointed him on that non-rainy St Swithin’s Day in 2014. Born in Llanelli, Robert was educated at Durham and Called to the Bar at Inner Temple at the same time as me, in 1991. His early years in practice were predominantly on the Wales and Chester Circuit with chambers in Swansea specialising in crime and he is a product of the new Bar Vocational Course which was introduced in 1989 which indicates what many of us as practitioners recognise as a ‘turn’ away from the older teaching and training methods for the Bar.  And Buckland, coming from a legal background, is an enthusiastic supporter of the circuits and the Inns of Court seeking an expanded role for the Inns in the future as he comes from a “new” Bar which loves communicating, and enjoys debating and analysing legal argument.

Human Rights Reform

The big question to be asked was inevitably about human rights and where we are today.  Robert disclosed that he did go on strike with colleagues over legal aid cuts some years ago.  He is well aware of the specific problems which we are continuing to face at the Criminal Bar and which any member of Counsel is aware today in practice.  Both he and the Attorney are also very well aware of what we face in austere Britain. They have no power to do much about cuts even if they could do so.  It says much for the Solicitor that he was quite frank with me about strikes over legal aid when many would duck the issue entirely.

And dealing effectively with the human rights issue really is about the ‘art of the possible’.  Buckland did say in a speech on Human Rights Day last year that

“my practice in South Wales was predominantly criminal legal aid, so the liberty of the individual lay at the heart of my work.  I have been a human rights lawyer, like thousands of fellow barristers and solicitors, for nearly 25 years. It’s just that I didn’t think to call myself one!”

I am sure that this quote sums up what virtually all lawyers feel about the issue and it was apparent that human rights reform will run for many months before we see new proposals from the incoming government.

The Solicitor’s job Description 

The Solicitor provides support for the Attorney in a number of particular areas: superintendence of the Treasury Solicitor’s department, the CPS, the Service Prosecuting Authority, HM Crown Prosecuting Service Inspectorate and the SFO.  Buckland also gives support on civil litigation and advice on civil law matters and the public interest function.  What will be of interest to “The Barrister” is that he does appear in court regularly with the ‘hands on’ approach and the post of the Solicitor is held by… a barrister… which is so British!  In fact there is a good reason for this because of the advocacy role of the Solicitor in the higher courts although any lawyer with higher rights could of course fulfil the role as I am sure all readers would agree.

The Development of Legal Apprenticeships

The continuing development of legal apprenticeship schemes is an important policy for the law officers and continues after the Addleshaw Goddard initiative on offering higher apprenticeships. Buckland is a great communicator and has an infective enthusiasm for the Legal Trailblazer Apprenticeship scheme which is just the start of a new entry route to the profession. The Inns of Court and the circuits and maintaining the traditions of the law are clear priorities for the Solicitor.

The Rise of Public Legal Education (PLE)

With the end to a ‘legal aid for all’ culture which will not return in the foreseeable future, where do we go with the vexed question of ‘litigants in person’ which is raised at so many meetings today?  The Solicitor confirmed his strong support for the continuing development of the “Public Legal Education” (PLE) which has an important role to play in modern legal proceedings if access to justice is to be made available to all. PLE is being rolled out in welfare law although it would seem another main priority for the law officers during this Parliament and they are both young experienced men tasked to see it through whilst maintaining the rule of law which began 800 years ago at Runnymede.

The public are clearly well served by our current law officers and this point emerged firmly from the interview.  If they do nothing else, they can act as a break on some of the more outrageous policies of the day pursued by the government which may cause legal difficulty although they remain to some extent ‘outsiders’ from the party political process because of their functions and approach which seems to me to be very healthy with a majority government.  It is astonishing that criticisms still surface from the usual suspects about new appointees emerging as complete unknowns to many on appointment but that’s the political process in practice- after all, who had heard of Margaret Thatcher or John Major as they emerged from the ministerial shadows to become party leaders? But that is the beauty of British politics, even spreading to issues of the Labour Party leadership.

So with the government’s law officers today who are both younger and established professionals do not have high public profiles (and probably shouldn’t have them) but they do very much represent the extremely high quality of talent now practising at the Bar which remains the envy of the world.  So be it!

The conclusion is that both the Attorney and the Solicitor are two safe pairs of hands starting their new terms of office after their respective “political pupillages” under the coalition government and there will be the many hard cases to handle.  Both are excellent choices for this curious and demanding portfolio for the twenty-first century.

Interviewer, Phillip Taylor MBE, Richmond Green Chambers

Reviews Editor, “The Barrister”

Phillip Taylor July 2015
Phillip Taylor July 2015

 

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