A former holder of the office once said: ‘To be a law officer is to be in hell.’ But here is one who thoroughly enjoys his job and doesn’t mind saying so – Michael Ellis QC MP, Attorney General since March 2021, when he was promoted from Solicitor General to cover his predecessor, Suella Braverman QC MP’s, maternity leave.

‘As Attorney General I enjoy making decisions in the public interest, the extra colour and the diversity of the work, contributing crucial advice to Cabinet. Most ministers tend to focus on their own departments but law officers see the whole gamut of government work. We are invariably at the centre of events but with an essentially quiescent role, ready to step in at short notice and always therefore being kept up to date with briefing on all the latest developments. There’s a mixture of advice and crime; all fascinating and complex. My advice helps government to get good things done within the law. It’s very rewarding.

‘No, I can’t tell you what I am advising on at the moment, but people know that I get drawn into big issues of political importance where the law is crucial to what ministers want to do, including international issues, human rights, devolution and COVID-19. The criminal side includes regular meetings with the DPP and the Director of the SFO, as part of my superintendence role; also, close personal involvement as guardian of the public interest in cases involving unduly lenient sentences [ULS] and contempt of court.’

The Law Officers annually refer about one hundred ULS cases to the Court of Appeal for an increase in sentence. ‘The court does not often disagree with one of our references,’ says Ellis. ‘Among the factors that weigh with me are the impact of the offence on victims and their families, public safety and public confidence in the criminal justice system. The central question of course is: was the sentence too low? We will have examined around 700 sentences out of the 80,000 or so that come out of the criminal courts every year. On that basis, and on the basis of my 17 years’ practice at the Bar, I can say sentencing judges almost always get it right. We are lucky to have a superb judiciary of paramount intellectual skill and the highest integrity and quality.’

Ellis has taken many ULS cases himself before the Court of Appeal. Does any case in particular stand out in his mind? ‘Perhaps the most groundbreaking one for me was when I argued that a whole-life tariff should have been imposed in two cases where the offenders had been convicted of multiple rape. The court significantly increased the sentences in those cases but did not impose a whole-life sentence. It did, however, accept my argument in principle and advised that a whole-life order can be imposed for an offence other than murder. As Leader of the Bar I regard it as important for people to see that I take my advocacy seriously, and I can say that over the years I have been impressed by many extremely diverse, engaged and committed advocates, all driven by a passion to represent others.’

At the time of our interview the Attorney was about to launch a week-long public education campaign called #ThinkBeforeYouPost to educate the public about contempt of court and warn them of the dangers of prejudicing active cases via social media. ‘There have been too many instances of contempt recently, including by members of the public posting material on social media that has caused trials to be aborted,’ he explains. ‘Aborted trials affect not only the defendant but also the victims and witnesses, who will then have to go through an often traumatic experience all over again. You can’t devote your life to the law without caring passionately about the rule of law. It’s relevant to all of my responsibilities. It’s an important part of our history, about which we can be proud, and it takes in equality under the law and access to impartial justice. Our legal system is the envy of the world and is attractive externally to others who, for example, want to contract under English law and settle their disputes here.’

© Tayfun Salci/ZUMA Wire/Shutterstock
Michael Ellis has been MP for Northampton North since 2010 and was appointed Solicitor General when Boris Johnson became Prime Minister in July 2019.

Would he say that the Supreme Court went too far in Miller 2? ‘All I will say is that it is very important that there is a balance between the various elements of our constitution. Parliamentary sovereignty is a long-established principle of English law; so too is the independence of the judiciary. My focus now as AG is to help support and guide the legal profession as we strive to undo the damage that the pandemic has done and help government to get us through it.’

What came first for him, politics or the law? ‘Pretty well both at the same time, from when I was 14 and was glued to the television every day watching the gripping events unfolding around the invasion of the Falklands. My upbringing, in Northampton, was loving and supportive. Family was and is the most important thing to me. My father was born in Calcutta and came here in his late teens with nothing; through sheer hard work and graft he did very well. The work ethic was instilled into me at an early age, along with a love of country. I loved my time at school and enjoyed being given responsibility. I enjoyed public speaking competitions at school and drama and things of that sort. I wasn’t pressured to do well in exams – but I probably put pressure on myself. Teachers would say, “Have you thought about a career at the Bar?” I was attracted to the profession, certainly the advocacy part of it. When I was 16 I even wrote a letter to Lord Hailsham, the Lord Chancellor – I don’t remember what it was about – and he replied, handwritten on House of Lords notepaper. I was impressed!’

He studied law at the University of Buckingham. ‘It had the merit for me of being a full LLB course that could be done in two years, and it was close to home. I still have friends from there now, including members of the House.’ Why the criminal Bar? ‘From school I had been attracted to the criminal law. Most lawyers tend to have a favourite field. That was mine. It didn’t disappoint when I came to study it and later to practise in it. Constitutional law wasn’t everybody’s favourite but I did well in it. Even then I was fascinated by the unwritten constitution. This connected well with my love of country and history. I joined Middle Temple and was called to the Bar in 1993. I had no contacts at the Bar. No one in my family that I knew of had gone into law. I applied for pupillage in the usual way and was lucky in that the Chambers who offered me pupillage and then a tenancy had an annex in Northampton. From the start I was struck by the supportive nature of our profession and its collegiality.’

For the next 17 years he concentrated on his legal career but also had a four-year spell on Northampton County Council. ‘When elected I was the youngest member of the council. It was a busy time for my legal work, so I did not stand again after 2001. The House of Commons had always been in my mind, but I probably needed a little push, and it came when I was introduced to a Conservative Party agent, who advised me to give it a shot.’

His loyalty to the area of his birth paid off and he was elected to represent Northampton North in 2010. ‘I immediately got sucked into backbench work. Typecast as a lawyer, I was put on the statutory instrument committee. Although it sounds dull, I enjoyed it. From its scrutiny work I gained valuable insights into the kind of legislation that has been necessary to effect Brexit and deal with the Pandemic. Even more fun was the Home Affairs Committee, which was very much in the public eye. I served on it for four years. One newspaper remarked on my inquisitorial style: Ellis asked questions with “all the gravitas of a prosecuting counsel”. Service on the committee was a nice reminder of my past practice at the Bar.’

It also led the Home Secretary, Teresa May, to appoint him as her Parliamentary Private Secretary. ‘I served her during the leadership contest. I saw her off from her office as she went to kiss hands with The Queen, and I then became deputy leader of the Commons. I enjoy the chamber. I think of it as the cradle of democracy, supporting the life of the country. My Commons office is located apart from other ministers. I believe the room has been continuously used by AGs since the late 19th century and, unlike other offices, has never been allocated to anyone else. In a sense the AG stands apart from other ministers.’

Ministerial roles followed in Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and in Transport. ‘After the last leadership contest I was honoured when the new PM retained my services and promoted me to Solicitor General.’

Is there any time left over for leisure? ‘Not an awful lot. In DCMS I loved my arts work – that was before the Pandemic – and I am looking forward to re-entering theatres, museums and the arts world when things get back to some sort of normal.’

The future? ‘I’d advise anyone thinking of the Bar that there is no substitute for hard work and determination; with them people can achieve anything. I believe we have a diverse and welcoming profession; for example, ours was one of the first to admit women. But we recognise that there is more to do, especially in the senior ranks of the profession. That is why I am delighted that the Government Legal Department, which I superintend, and which plays a vital role in supporting me in my advisory work, is now headed by Susanna McGibbon, the second woman ever in the role.’

He became AG in March when Suella Braverman became the first ever ‘minister on leave’. What next for him? ‘Every minister serves at the pleasure of the PM. Being AG is for me a tremendous privilege, the honour of my life, and in its challenge and variety most enjoyable too.’