Adviser to the top of government

Anthony Inglese CB meets the government’s most senior legal official, Treasury Solicitor Jonathan Jones, for an insight into his role and the application of law in the political context

‘Government wants to do whatever’s possible to achieve its aims within the rule of law – and will push at the limits, as it has every right to do,’ explains Jonathan Jones, the lawyer who advises the pinnacle of government. 

His two main clients are the Prime Minister and the top civil servant, Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood. ‘If a legal issue is important enough to be on Jeremy’s radar, then it’s on mine. Law is at the heart of government: EU, constitutional reform, human rights. Ministers and senior officials look to me for a high level of personal input and assurance, especially on issues spanning more than one department’s responsibilities, for example EU renegotiation.’ There was ‘huge input’ from government lawyers in many departments, with Jonathan himself going to Brussels ‘a couple of times for set-piece encounters. This was a class act collectively by government lawyers – a huge legal machine which I lead, giving my assurance and adding my personal advice. The government wanted to do ambitious things, and there was a stretching set of conversations behind closed doors. I’m proud of what we did.’

Does Jonathan ever come under uncomfortable personal pressure when advising strong minded personalities? ‘It’s not a battle. My job is to give constructive advice, to help government achieve its objectives within the rule of law. Occasionally I have to say no and offer options for another way through. How? I rely on my legal experience; on help from colleagues; on my reputation for problem-solving, on always having a way forward, even if it is only a handling plan; and on the strong and trusting relationships which I have with the key people. A close relationship with the Attorney General [Jeremy Wright QC] is essential. Ministers understand they have to operate within the law but they’re entitled to challenge and frankly sometimes get frustrated, like any other client.’ Consummately calm, Jonathan has dealt with his fair share of crises from his very first day as Treasury Solicitor two years ago. ‘What is heartening is that when there is a crisis it occurs to someone to get legal advice and call me in.’ He doesn’t rest on his laurels: ‘You are as valued as your last performance.’

Jonathan’s clients like the fact that he always ensures they understand the legal risks involved in the options under consideration. ‘Provided a proposed action is not unlawful, government is entitled to accept a high level of legal risk in pursuing its policies and making its decisions, and it’s not for lawyers to say no or for clients to hide behind their lawyers.’

Roles and reach

A man of many titles, Jonathan is first, by statute, Treasury Solicitor. His department, the Government Legal Department, continues to litigate under that name. ‘It’s not generally known that as Treasury Solicitor I own some government assets, including the Bank of England. One day I had to hold a shareholder’s meeting of another asset – which I can’t mention – of which I owned the only share, sitting alone in my meeting room. I was advised by my note taker on the end of a phone to vote by a show of hands, so I stuck my hand up in the air!’

Jonathan is also Her Majesty’s Procurator General, which carries responsibilities as Queen’s Proctor to intervene in certain kinds of matrimonial proceedings to prevent fraud or irregularity. ‘It sounds arcane, but there is still real life in it. I had to intervene recently to end a scam by which people were being provided with fraudulent immigration status from Italy so they could get divorced here because it was easier than at home.’ His third title is Permanent Secretary of the Government Legal Department. Following the department’s recent augmentation by lawyers from several other legal teams across the civil service, including a number in offices outside London, ‘I made the decision to change the name from the “Treasury Solicitor’s Department”. I knew a change could be controversial, but we were bringing so many new lawyers into the enlarged department that it was important to make a fresh start with a name that worked for the incomers as well as the existing staff, which “Government Legal Department” does. By bringing so many lawyers together into a two thousand-strong department we have better resilience and can continue to improve how we do things, for example, training, career moves, talent management, restructuring to enable specialist areas such as commercial and employment law to be handled more effectively, producing more coherent policies, for example on risk-based legal advice, and investment in new forms of digital services and knowledge management.’

As a Permanent Secretary Jonathan attends the weekly Wednesday Morning Meetings of all departmental heads, chaired by the Cabinet Secretary. ‘It’s an important community. They are all my clients in one form or another and I see them as colleagues and friends. Discussion is free-flowing. I can do a lot of business in the time we spend together at these meetings, plus away days, working groups and informal sessions.’

Jonathan’s fourth title – Head of the Government Legal Service, ie of the wider community of civil lawyers in government – still retains meaning, even though three quarters of them now work in his own department. This is more of a ‘head of profession’ and co-ordinating role but is important to lawyers in the other departments, such as HM Revenue & Customs, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Business and Energy departments and the various central government competition and regulatory offices. Jonathan himself began his government career in one of these, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), now part of the larger Competition and Markets Authority. ‘I applied to the OFT because I fancied the idea of doing competition law for the OFT. I really enjoyed working there. Then I realised I was part of a wider legal community and I could go on from there. I never planned my career very far ahead. I did things that interested me at the time.’

The range and depth of his later experience served Jonathan well. ‘I’ve never said no to an opportunity and I’ve learned from all my jobs how to apply the law in a political context’: rail privatisation in the Transport Department; a spell in the Treasury; heading the Education legal team (‘my first substantial management job’); two postings to the Attorney’s Office, the second as head (‘Iraq, cash for honours, arms exports, the hunting ban, devolution, bedding in the Human Rights Act’); Deputy Treasury Solicitor, with even bigger management responsibilities; and finally ‘a great job’ as Legal Adviser to the Home Office (‘deporting Abu Qatada’).

Bar roots

Why a barrister? ‘Hard to remember. I probably thought I was quite good at arguing, though I didn’t end up doing any significant courtroom advocacy.’ A Bencher at Middle Temple, Jonathan helped several years ago to set up the Inn’s well-regarded advocacy training for new practitioners who are employed barristers and, commendably for one so senior, continues hands-on training today. ‘Absorbing complicated material; conveying it to an audience, whether a minister, senior officials or a committee, in a way that is compelling; responding to direct and sometimes hostile interrogation: the format differs but many of the skills are the same as those needed for the courtroom.’

What about relationships with the wider legal world? ‘We have a pretty good relationship with the judiciary, including the Lord Chief Justice, the Supreme Court and the Administrative Court.’ Jonathan meets the judiciary regularly. ‘They “get” us. They realise our work is important. If there are ever slip ups, it is better to have conversations – within the limits of propriety.’ Relationships with the Bar are also close, including with members of the Attorney General’s civil panels, headed by First Treasury Counsel, James Eadie QC (‘brilliant support to the government and to me personally when needed – an absolute stalwart’). Relationships with the law firms on the external panels are set to tighten this year as the system is refreshed.

Government work appeal

As Jonathan passes the first anniversary of the establishment of the Government Legal Department he is proud of the achievements of his lawyers and optimistic for the future. He believes government work remains attractive to recruits, 65% of whom are women. ‘We get high interest for our traineeships and qualified lawyer posts. I meet all new government lawyers. They are impressive. We offer flexible working and better work/life balance than many other organisations and a broad range of legal experiences – legislation, public law, human rights, litigation. We do the most important work there is. It affects society, the running of the country, the rule of law, the administration of justice and national security. It’s not surprising people want to come and do it.’

Contributor Anthony Inglese CB, former head of legal at the Government Legal Service

Curriculum Vitae, Jonathan Jones, Treasury Solictor

Jonathan took up his role as Treasury Solicitor and Permanent Secretary of the Treasury Solicitor’s Department (now known as the Government Legal Department) on 1 March 2014, taking over from Sir Paul Jenkins on his retirement. His previous roles include: Director General, Home Office Legal Adviser’s Branch, 2012 to 2014; Deputy Treasury Solicitor at the Treasury Solicitor’s Department, 2009 to 2012; Director General of the Attorney General’s Office, 2004 to 2009; Legal Adviser to the Department for Education, 2002 to 2004. He is a barrister and a Bencher of Middle Temple, where he is active in training junior members of the Bar.

 

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Anthony Inglese

Anthony was head of legal in five Government Legal Departments over a 38-year career, most recently as General Counsel and Solicitor to HM Revenue & Customs. A Bencher of Gray’s Inn, he now trains and mentors lawyers.