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The role of the Attorney General for England and Wales

24th April 2017

Attorney General Jeremy Wright QC

David Bernstein, chairman of British Red Cross (left), Jeremy Wright QC (right)

The UK Attorney General offers legal advice to the government in England and Wales. Officially known as Her Majesty’s Attorney General for England and Wales, the attorney general works with the subordinate solicitor general as the chief legal adviser of the Crown and its government. The current attorney general is Jeremy Wright, Conservative MP for Kenilworth and Southam, and the solicitor general is Robert Buckland, Conservative MP for Swindon South.

What does the attorney general do?

The attorney general’s main role is to advise the government on any legal repercussions of their actions, either at meetings or in writing. The key responsibilities of the role include:

  • Overseeing the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and Serious Fraud Office with the authority to prosecute cases
  • Overseeing the Government Legal Department, HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate, the Service Prosecuting Authority and the strategic body and the National Fraud Authority
  • Advising the government, individual government departments and individual government ministers on legal matters
  • Bringing “unduly lenient” sentences and points of law to the Court of Appeal of England and Wales

This legal job is extremely demanding, although since the passing of the Law Officers Act 1997, duties can also be delegated to the solicitor general and any actions are treated as though they came from the attorney general. The Attorney General’s Office (AGO) is a government department to support the attorney general and solicitor general. It is one of the smallest UK government departments, with around 40 members of staff.

Attorney General’s Office (AGO)

The AGO provides legal advice and support to the attorney general, currently Jeremy Wright MP, and the solicitor general. According to the Government website, the AGO: “Helps the Law Officers perform other duties in the public interest, such as looking at sentences which may be too low.

“If a sentence given in a Crown Court appears to be very low, or unduly lenient, anyone can ask the Attorney General to examine the sentence within 28 days of sentencing. The attorney general or solicitor general may then ask the Court of Appeal to look at the sentence. The Court may decide to keep the sentence the same, increase it, or issue guidance for future cases.”

A brief history of the role

Although it is unclear when the role was first created, it is believed to date back to 1243 when a professional attorney was hired to represent the King’s interests in court. The role of an attorney general first shifted to politics in 1461, when the holder of the office was summoned to the House of Lords to advise the government on legal matters.

It is believed that in 1673 the attorney general officially became the Crown’s adviser and representative in legal matters, specialising in litigation rather than advice. In the 20th century, the role moved towards legal advice.

Who is the current attorney general?

Houses of Parliament and offices for legal roles

Jeremy Wright is the current attorney general and also the MP for Kenilworth and Southam. He was appointed on 15th July 2014 by Prime Minister David Cameron. Prior to being promoted to this position, Mr Wright was appointed Under-Secretary of State in the Ministry of Justice in 2012.

In 2016 he faced calls to stand down due to what critics perceived to be a lack of commitment to Brexit, saying he should be replaced with a more experienced QC. Despite concerns over his experience, Wright has received some praise. In a comment on the departure of Dominic Grieve, Wright’s predecessor, Shami Chakrabarti of civil liberties and human rights campaign group Liberty commended Wright, stating to the BBC that the country “may have gained a freer and even more outspoken advocate for human rights.”

Examples of the attorney general’s powers

Clarifying laws surrounding terrorism

Jeremy Wright has outlined the need to clarify the legal basis for British military strikes against terror targets overseas. In plans announced in January 2017, the attorney general called for greater clarity within the laws surrounding pre-emptive military strikes against terrorist targets overseas.

In a speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Jeremy Wright set out the requirements that must be met before ministers authorise the deployment of armed drones or other weapons to disrupt immediate terror plots targeting the UK. According to a report in The Guardian, Wright’s aim is to update international law and help the public understand the legal basis of any future strikes.

Reviewing unduly lenient sentences by the Crown Prosecution Service

In 2016, more than 102 prisoners in England and Wales had their sentences extended, following complaints that their original sentences were too lenient. According to a BBC report, more than half of the cases involved sexual offences or robbery. The complaints about the sentences were made under the Unduly Lenient Sentence (ULS) scheme, which allows those unhappy with the sentence passed for some serious crimes, to ask officials to review it.

In the report, Jeremy Wright said: “While in the vast majority of cases, sentencing judges get it right, the ULS scheme is essential in ensuring victims, family members of victims and the general public are able to request that sentences they think are unduly lenient can be reviewed and, where necessary, increased.”

Overruling government decisions

As well as providing legal guidance to the government, the attorney general has the power to overrule government decisions if necessary. In 2010, an inquiry was set up to investigate allegations of mistreatment of civilians in Iraq by British service personnel. In 2016 it was revealed that David Cameron sought to shut down these criminal investigations, but it was overruled by Government lawyers. According to a report in The Telegraph, David Cameron believed the investigation, named IHAT, should have been abandoned, with critics labelling the inquiry a “disgrace” and a “betrayal”.

Representing former politicians in prosecutions

In March 2017, it was revealed that Jeremy Wright will go to court to demand the rejection of an attempt to prosecute former Prime Minister Tony Blair over the Iraq war. According to The Guardian, a planned intervention by the attorney general comes after a judge ruled Blair had immunity from the attempt to bring a criminal charge against him and that pursuing a prosecution could “involve details being disclosed under the Official Secrets Act.” The private prosecution is targeting Tony Blair, the foreign secretary Jack Straw and Lord Goldsmith, the attorney general at the time, for their “crime of aggression” based on the damning findings of last year’s Chilcot report.

UK vs US attorney general

The first thing to note is that the U.S has an attorney general for each of its 50 states, as well as one superseding United States Attorney General. The U.S attorney general represents the government in all legal matters. They are selected by the president and the decision is confirmed by the U.S Senate. The attorney general does not hold the position for a designated term, but can be removed from the office by the president at any time. As with the position in the UK, the attorney general can be impeached and tried by Congress (or House of Commons in the UK) if deemed necessary.

Historically, the role of attorney general in the United States dates back to the American Revolution and the establishment of a federal government. Although Americans did not want to create a monarchy like Britain’s, they felt it was important to institute an office similar to the British attorney general. The role of U.S Attorney General is very similar to the role in the UK. The U.S Attorney General represents the United States in legal matters and offers advice and opinions to the president and to the heads of the executive departments of the government if needed.

The current U.S Attorney General position is held by Jeff Sessions, an American politician and lawyer. Within weeks of taking on his new role, it came to light that Sessions had lied while under oath about meeting with Russian officials during President Donald Trump’s campaign, resulting in calls for the attorney general to be impeached. Although not illegal, in light of the scandal of Russia’s alleged involvement in the U.S elections, Sessions was criticised.

Image credits: Foreign and Commonwealth Office