‘The people I have always admired have made a difference through advocacy. It’s what inspired me towards the Bar. You need a healthy frisson of nerves when you get up to speak – whether in court, in public or in the House of Commons. Complacency is an enemy. Nerves are like an old friend. I’d be more worried about not feeling nervous. As a barrister you are used to preparing but there isn’t always time to prepare for speaking in public or Parliament, and much can depend on the audience reaction. You never really know exactly what it is you are going to say until you stand up. Churchill was a great writer and speaker, but even he came a cropper on occasions. His best friend, F E Smith, was brilliant in Parliament but he would get into trouble with his wicked sense of humour in court. In Shakespeare we have Henry V and Mark Antony, great characters who against the odds turned events round by their advocacy.’

I am sitting across the corner of a desk with Robert Courts KC MP, Solicitor General since December 2023. He is about four months into his role when we meet in April, in his cosy room just off Central Lobby. It’s convenient for the Chamber, which is just as well, as he is having to pop out and back again several times for votes on a Bill. ‘I love the history of this room. It’s been the SG’s room for a long time. FE Smith was Solicitor General for six months before becoming Attorney General and moving next door. I like to think of him sitting here.’ Pictures of planes adorn the walls. ‘One quarter of the RAF’s personnel are based in my constituency at Brize Norton. It’s a source of immense pride. My grandfather and great uncle both served in Bomber Command.’

This won’t be his first appearance in Counsel, he tells me. In 2009 he was mentioned in a fun article about nominative determinism in the law, along with Sir Igor Judge, then LCJ, and Lord Justice Laws.

Politics runs in the family blood. His great grandfather, Albert Stubbs, was a Trade Union Labour MP for five years from 1945. ‘His life was about service, about representation and about advocacy.’ His father is now leader of Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council. Courts himself was born in Stockport. When he was eight months old the family moved to Hertfordshire. He attended Berkhamsted school, ‘our wonderful local school for the town. It was where I started speaking in public a lot, acting and debating. I can say I have been doing public speaking since the age of seven.’ His favourite subject? ‘History. When I have time off now I read history. I see everything through the lens of history. As Churchill said, “Study history, study history. In history lies all the secrets of statecraft.”’

Why law? ‘I had thought about the military but I am badly colour-blind. I briefly considered journalism. I liked writing – and still do.’ (He reviews books for the Churchill Centre’s Quarterly Journal.) ‘At school, I was disturbed by the case of Private Clegg [who was convicted in 1993 of murder when shooting a joy rider who had burst through a checkpoint in Northern Ireland; his defence was a belief that he and colleagues were under threat; he was eventually cleared in 1999]. I thought it was an unfair verdict. I wrote to the Telegraph about it – alas, my letter wasn’t published! I felt strongly that we should defend the armed forces. They take decisions in unbelievably difficult circumstances. It’s crucial that some subjectivity should be allowed.’

Law studies at Sheffield University followed. He singles out international law as a highlight. ‘It’s helped have a grounding in it.’ He was called in 2003, then worked as a paralegal ‘for experience and to put money aside. I wanted a broad common law and criminal practice in a Circuit-based common law set. I liked people issues and factual situations and of course advocacy. This led me to personal injury and crime. It all came together with pupillage and practice at 3 Paper Buildings. I spent my first seven years in 3PB’s Winchester Chambers. It was there where I really learned to be a barrister. They were hugely rewarding and stimulating years: the ethics, the spirit of camaraderie and decency, prosecuting in a fair manner, hard work and personal responsibility. Every day in this job as Solicitor General and MP I lean on the experience gained in that period. As a minister my job is to know what I am doing, to get it right. That’s the Bar’s ethic too. To be on top of all you do – or else – working late at night at tasks that just must be done. I remain in touch socially with my pupil master and members of Chambers. I have the warmest feelings for them.’ He shows me a photo of himself with two other former pupils of Chambers. ‘The three of us have all gone on to become Conservative MPs, two of us as Solicitor General, Michael Tomlinson being my predecessor. Since that photo was taken we have been joined in Parliament by another former pupil. I’d love to know whether any other set has a track record of producing four MPs at the same time.’

After seven years he moved to 3PB’s Oxford Chambers. ‘I could still practise on the Western Circuit and from the same Chambers. More to the point, I had met my future wife, and we were going to settle down in Bladon, where Churchill is buried. By then my practice comprised more civil. There was less crime but it included prosecuting for Oxford County Council.’

When did the politics start? ‘I had been a party activist since school. I learned how to campaign, taking time off from the Bar to do so. You have to do this if you want to become an MP; you have to go through the stages, understand what’s needed.’ These ‘stages’ included standing unsuccessfully for Solihull Council in a safe Labour ward in 2002. Then in 2014 Courts was elected to West Oxfordshire District Council, a good stepping stone to becoming MP for Witney in 2016, when the seat was vacated by David Cameron after the Brexit referendum. ‘Your life changes overnight when you become an MP, especially at a by-election.’ He ceased practice. The next few years included learning the ropes from the back benches, a junior ministerial role in the Transport department and membership, and later chairmanship, of the Defence Select Committee.

‘The day I heard I was being appointed Solicitor General I was doing the school run.’ Courts has two young children. ‘I had no idea anything was in the offing. I was expecting to spend the day at my constituency desk. As people know, the Law Officers don’t hold any policy brief, and the Attorney General and Solicitor General have exactly the same powers as each other under our parent Act. I tend to lead on the criminal work, including consents to prosecute and unduly lenient sentences. I consider an average of three or four applications each day for a reference to the Court of Appeal. We make over a hundred references a year, of which about two thirds result in an increased sentence. I answer to Parliament for the CPS and the SFO. I enjoy visiting their offices. But the Attorney General and I don’t manage them. They are obviously and rightly independent. We do, however, offer general challenge and support. Particular interests of mine include international law, defence, the use of force and counter terrorism. One topical issue here is freedom of navigation. It makes our world work, as I saw at the Department for Transport. Many of the things we are looking at sitting here in this room come in on container ships, thanks to wonderful sailors working in all weathers. That trade is made possible by the rule of law. We defend it domestically and internationally.’ There is a link here with his former work as member and chair of the Defence Select Committee. ‘I see my role as to serve. I advise government independently as Solicitor General. As a select committee chair you are also independent. You spend a lot of time in a cross-party world and you have to have the support of the other parties. I feel passionately too about government with a small ‘g’. Democracy faces a challenge from social media. Parliament makes law, MPs are legislators not social media pontificators or talking heads. Everything we do in our building is nuanced, complicated and difficult.’

His top three concerns as Solicitor General: ‘Getting the law right in relation to the protests we have seen in our streets, for example protestors who cause criminal damage, which we have now done through our reference to the Court of Appeal; private prosecutions; and disclosure. My pupil master would say “the three most important things are disclosure, disclosure and disclosure”. You assume nothing. You leave no stone unturned. It’s the same for a politician and minister. I am genuinely horrified at the Horizon scandal. I don’t want to step on the toes of the Inquiry, but when it has reported I will want us to eliminate the systemic problems shown in the case. I see a great deal of force in Bob Neill’s [Justice] Committee’s recommendations about private prosecutions. And when an organisation conducts its own prosecutions there is something to be said for always involving people from outside in the cases.’

Advice to those starting out? ‘I am acutely conscious of the pressures on the Bar. In my role as Solicitor General, I regularly meet the Bar Council and the judiciary. I know there is concern over listings and the numbers of counsel to do all the cases. I am a champion for the Bar. It’s a most wonderful profession, immensely rewarding and stimulating, incredibly moral, offering the widest range of work, not just a job but a way of life. I see something similar in the armed forces. The Bar makes big demands; it’s emotionally taxing; it’s no respecter of your private life. But, for the reward and sheer professionalism that it gives you, I’d always say: go for it.’ 

© UK government
Solicitor General Robert Courts KC MP (left) with Lord Chancellor Alex Chalk KC MP in December 2023.
© UK government

Solicitor General Robert Courts KC MP (centre) with Crown Prosecution Service RASSO in February 2024.