Law in Action

domgreiveDavid Wurtzel meets Dominic Grieve QC MP

While his colleagues have been emphasising how different they will be from the Labour Minister who came before them, the new Attorney General, Dominic Grieve QC MP, prefers to see the development of the law officers’ role as “seamless”. When we met in his Victoria Street office in late July, he explained that he looked back to his Tory predecessors, Patrick Mayhew and Nicholas Lyell.

To Grieve the job is to ensure the highest quality legal advice for the government. However we are supposed to detach ourselves very slightly from the mainstream of political controversy.” This means not getting “dragged into the generality of political policy making”. Although he expects to make an input into criminal justice reform, “I don’t think the nature of the department best places it to take a leadership role in policy”.

 Instead, “we are there to try to ensure that the government stays on the rails, avoids legal pitfalls and is aware of the legal consequences of policy decisions it may wish to take”. He aims to be seen as delivering advice to government “dispassionately, independently, and in the full understanding of the problems confronting my colleagues”. A few years ago it was proposed that all decisions about whether or not to prosecute should rest with the Director of Public Prosecutions and that the Attorney General should be replaced by a lawyer embedded in the Ministry of Justice. Baroness Scotland, with Grieve’s support, successfully resisted that. Both saw a “huge value” in having the Attorney in government “with an understanding of the government’s problems and accountable to Parliament”.



A prime qualification for this is a sense of judgment. Ironically, Grieve’s political career was given two significant boosts as a result of the bad judgment demonstrated by others. His selection for the safe seat of Beaconsfield was made possible by the decision to stand down by the sitting MP, Tim Smith, after admitting his involvement in the “cash for questions” affair. Two years ago, when David Davis suddenly resigned his seat over the “42 days’ detention” question, Grieve was promoted to Davis’ Shadow Home Office brief in July 2008. He acquitted himself so well that he became Shadow Justice Secretary from January 2009 to May 2010, continuing his frontbench role in criminal justice matters, constitutional affairs and ethnic diversity. He became Attorney General in the new government.
In a sense, he has been in and out of the House of Commons since he was aged eight. His father, Percy, another barrister, was MP for Solihull from 1964 to 1983. Dominic was a member of the Council of JUSTICE and lists amongst his political interests the European Union and France. His mother was French and his own facility with the language is such that he appears from time to time on French radio when comment is needed on British politics. He was Called to the Bar in 1980 and latterly practised in Temple Garden Chambers. From 1990 to 1996 he was a lay visitor to police stations. This volunteer task was one of Lord Scarman’s recommendations following the Brixton riots, the object of which is to promote public confidence in policing. The lay visitor makes unannounced visits to police stations to inspect conditions under which persons are detained. It brought home to Grieve the “diversity of those in custody”. He attended Bar Council meetings as an Opposition spokesman and was a regular panellist at Bar Conference workshops.


Leader of the Bar

Now that he is Attorney General he is also leader of the Bar, a title which dates back to the era before the existence of a Bar Council and Bar secretariat. However he has no wish to be merely a titular head. In what is a break from his predecessors he plans regularly to attend Bar Council meetings and has attended both since he took office – including the AGM. In July the floor was opened to questions for him. The topics included the full range of grievances from the publicly funded criminal Bar even though the majority fell within the ambit of the Ministry of Justice. He noted them all, being happy to act as a link between the Bar Council and the government and to explain the government’s policy to the Bar. It was all forthright and straightforward, just like our interview.


Immediate priorities

I asked about his immediate priorities. He has a statutory role in superintending the prosecuting departments, the Crown Prosecution Service (“CPS”) and the Serious Fraud Office (“SFO”), and a non-statutory role of oversight more generally of prosecution matters. This extends to a large number of government departments like DEFRA which prosecute. The SFO is among other agencies currently under consideration for the creation of a new economic crime agency, which is a commitment in the Coalition Programme. He sees his job as one of ensuring “general efficiency”. He is particularly concerned that there is “quite a serious problem in this country in the way in which fraud is dealt with”. Too often the police advise victims that they should pursue a civil remedy. This effective withdrawal by the police from aspects of this field is long standing and “I think we should be worried about” that long term decline. There is quite a lot of evidence of “serious criminality” taking a very keen interest in volume fraud, ie instead of a “big scam” involving millions, very small amounts of money are defrauded from a very large number of people. It still adds up to millions. That needs to be looked at, to come up with something “which is much more responsive to the kind of ingenious economic frauds”.


Supervising the CPS

Grieve’s other great supervising task is the CPS. He meets regularly with the DPP. They share a commitment to “raise overall quality”. There appears to be more of a problem with “through put cases” rather than with the specialised units which are rated highly. He has begun to visit CPS areas—he was in Nottingham and the Midlands the week before we met—where he talks to senior management, higher court advocates (“HCAs”) and those doing the case prep. He wants to see what works and whether there are examples of good practice that can be rolled out throughout the service. Can the CPS continue to carry out their functions properly in the “age of austerity”? In late July the “iterative process” with the Treasury was still ongoing but Grieve was sure that it was possible “to carry out savings exercises” that did not adversely impact on the ability to deliver.   

At the July Bar Council meeting he declared that he wanted the self-employed Bar to have the lion’s share of prosecution work. I put to him the current statistics (50 per cent in volume, 73 per cent in value) and he felt that was the lion’s share. Both he and the DPP are working “to the same agenda, that is, a recognition that there is a vital role for the referral Bar in carrying out prosecution work”. At the same time there is room for higher courts advocacy within the CPS which in turn has to provide a career structure for all its lawyers. “I want CPS barrister prosecutors to be viewed as members of the Bar who happen to be doing a particular job”. He is well aware of the criticism of HCAs in the Crown Court and that this needs to be dealt with. At the same time, the Bar itself must live up to its own standards. He supports a quality assurance scheme in which some may fail. “That is a perfectly sensible way of proceeding. One solution is to review the lists and to tighten them up, and to make sure those on the lists get more work or more offers of work. Sustained competence is rather important” if the Bar wants to have a future which must be on the basis of the excellence of its work.

David Wurtzel is Counsel’s Consultant Editor



Dominic Grieve QC MP was appointed Attorney General by Prime Minister David Cameron on 12 May 2010.
He has been Member of Parliament for Beaconsfield since 1997.

Mr Grieve has been Secretary of the Conservative Backbench Committee on the Constitution, Legal Affairs and Northern Ireland and was a member of the Select Committee on Environmental Audit and the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments from 1997-1999.
Mr Grieve was Conservative spokesman for Scotland and for Criminal Justice and Community Cohesion, as part of the Shadow Home Affairs team. He served as Shadow Attorney General from 2003 to 2009 and also Shadow Home Secretary from June 2008 to 2009. In January 2009 he became the Shadow Secretary of State for Justice.

Mr Grieve was a local councillor in Fulham in the 1980s, and Chairman of the Research Committee of the Society of Conservative Lawyers as well as a lay visitor to police stations. He has been a Member of the London Diocesan Synod of the Church of England and is a deputy Church Warden. He is a member of the Franco-British Council and governor of the Ditchley Foundation.

He was educated at Westminster School and Magdalen College Oxford, where he studied modern history. He was called to the Bar in 1980.