‘As government lawyers we help ministers make considered decisions based on competent advice. This doesn’t mean avoiding all legal risk. But there is a line beyond which a proposed decision would be unlawful. It’s our job to be clear about the legal boundary between lawful and unlawful. We have to make our ministers absolutely aware of situations of high risk and situations of unlawfulness.’

This is Caroline Croft, since June 2023 Director General for the Employment with Economic Recovery and UK Governance Directorate at the Government Legal Department (GLD). We are sitting in its London office on Petty France, with views over St James’s Park.

Her wide-ranging career has given her a sense of how courts are likely to view novel issues where there is no reliable legal precedent. ‘I have drafted primary and subordinate legislation, advised ministers in several departments and been involved in much litigation, which serves to develop “nous”.

‘Most government lawyers don’t go to court as advocates. Our advocacy tends to happen in discussions with policy colleagues and ministers as we help to formulate decisions which can affect millions of people. A rule of law culture doesn’t mean that there’s no push-back from ministers; they are not doing their job if they don’t push us sometimes. As someone who likes an argument, I’ve had some very good ones.’

As one of three Director Generals, Croft supports the Treasury Solicitor, Susanna McGibbon, in the running of the largest legal department in government, with 3,200 staff, including 2,300 lawyers in London, Croydon, Bristol, Leeds and Manchester. GLD is on its way to becoming a national organisation.

Croft herself is responsible for over 700 people, making her one of the largest legal heads in the UK. GLD provides legal advice to 14 central government departments, and is the largest legal entity of the Government Legal Profession. Her directorate includes one of GLD’s specialist functions, the Employment Law Group, who deal with issues that are often sensitive, (especially as government tends not to settle cases for a quiet life). She also oversees the legal advisers to a group of departments which she describes as ‘what government does for you’: education, health and social care, work and pensions, transport and levelling up. There is also oversight of the UK’s legal positions on devolution and equality.

‘I seek to build a real community among my legal advisers. We regularly talk to each other about what we doing. This makes us better lawyers and our jobs more fun. My job is to nurture the lawyers and provide extra resilience, so that when things get tricky they have someone to talk it over with. I try to spot really difficult things in advance, ask the right questions and keep the Treasury Solicitor informed for her regular meetings of permanent secretaries. Policy issues affecting one department often affect others.’

As a member of the GLD board she leads on GLD’s strategy. ‘We are both a major government department and one of the country’s biggest “law firms” – so we need to be deliberate about where we are heading as an organisation. We are clear about our overarching purpose – to help the government to govern well within the rule of law – and we need to make sure we continue to do that really well, in a time of rapidly changing tech, a (welcome) push to move to increase our presence outside London, and a competitive market for lawyers.’

Croft was brought up in Strawberry Hill in London and then Surrey from age nine. Her mother was a maths teacher, her father a senior civil servant. ‘Both from proper working-class families – one grandfather was a miner – they were the first to go to university; life was focused on getting an education, grammar school, Oxbridge.’ Croft was ‘lucky enough’ to get a place to do her A-levels at Westminster School, a public school in the precincts of Westminster Abbey, a few minutes’ walk from many of the buildings where she has worked in government. ‘The teaching was incredibly good. I enjoyed a fantastic education in maths and science. But people kept telling me girls couldn’t do maths – and I was the only girl in my maths set. And I have always been very conscious that such schools entrench privilege. I initially thought I wanted to be a doctor but changed my mind. What remained was the thought that there was something good about having a profession.’

Brasenose College, Oxford followed in 1985. Her subject was PPE ‘with lots and lots of philosophy. I enjoyed the clever people and the clarity of thought. I could spend a whole week thinking about the word “ought”. Logic studies came up later in my career in an ECJ case about remedies: did “or” mean “or” or “and/or”? In formal logic the sign for “or” means “and/or”.’ At this point your interviewer was well out of his depth and required a lesson in formal logic symbols. ‘The rigour of thought was lovely for a mathematician. Seeing the logical side of things can make you a really good lawyer.

‘After Oxford I got a job at the Institute of Psychiatry exploring the economic aspects of mental illness. From there I was head hunted by the Civil Service as a “casual” economist to look at setting GP fundholder budgets, seen then as a first step in the privatisation of the NHS. At the time I already had a place to do the Bar conversion course. Wanting to be a barrister came first for me ahead of wanting to study law. I had always liked arguing. People used to say to me I should be a barrister. At the Institute lots of my interviewees and their family members had contacts with the courts as defendants or victims. Many of their problems were ones that I thought could be fixed. I did a mini-pupillage in a criminal set and was told: “You are intervening in moments of real crisis in peoples’ lives.” I wanted to help individuals. And, if I am being honest with myself, the sheer glamour of the Bar attracted me; female barristers are glamorous. Don’t knock it!

‘When I started the conversion course, I found I liked the speed at which we had to work. Learning through stories – the snail in the ginger beer bottle – was especially attractive to someone who had hitherto learned through principles. Case law is created from the messiness of real life, because real life is messy.’ She was called in 1991.

‘I then did a funded pupillage at 5KBW – cases involving drug importation and social security fraud – but I realised that I needed to get into something that appealed to my interests in public law and politics. I made successful applications to the Civil Service but then turned the offers down. One was for a job that seemed very dull – I had better not say what it was. And then in 1992 I accepted an offer from the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel [which drafts all primary legislation for government]. I really enjoyed the intellectual puzzle of putting policy into words and I began to get increasingly interested in the policies behind what we were doing. What I saw was that by the time a legislative project came to us the politics had largely been sorted out – occasionally they hadn’t, and that was fun. But the people who got involved at the best time were the government lawyers.’

A chat with the Department for Business and Trade, then known as the Department of Trade and Industry, resulted in a transfer in 1995 to work on the politically contentious topic of deregulation ‘and got me for the first time into EU law, including the Working Time Directive. My father had worked in that department previously but had moved on shortly before I arrived. My first line manager would comment: “I know I am getting old when I start working with the daughter of someone I have been advising”.’ There followed moves into employment law, the EU single market and the rescue of British Energy.

‘By the year 2000 I was married with two small children. I actually had to ask for permission to work part time. I was told I could never work on a Bill as a part-timer or be promoted or do exciting jobs but that I would be allowed to work three days a week provided that I was flexible, whatever that meant.

‘None of this came true in the end, and things are much better now for part-timers, men and women. I have worked in two job shares, one of which was with a male colleague in the government’s hub that co-ordinated legal work on EU law.’ Promotion to senior levels came in 2005, as a part-timer, and over the years Croft moved to head several legal teams across government as the chief legal adviser, including the large health team during the pandemic, and digital, culture media and sport, before arriving in her current, overarching role. She is one of the first at board level to work four days a week.

As a top government lawyer Croft is heavily into recruitment and career development. She says: ‘If anyone wants a career where they will never be bored and where they get to work with the most fantastically diverse set of people, they should come to government. You can have the most amazing career.

‘Women particularly thrive in government. It’s a really nice place to work. I have had such a good time here. It’s not just about brain power and politics. There’s a huge difference in the quality of life. I have felt nurtured throughout my career in a way I wouldn’t have been had I remained in chambers.’