Interview with new Solicitor General Elish Angiolini

If the appointment of Elish Angiolini as the new Solicitor General can be viewed as positive evidence of an all-encompassing, modern profession, then much of the coverage surrounding her appointment probably suggests that the glass ceiling has been merely cracked, not shattered.

You might say that details such as your father’s job, spouse’s career choice and childcare arrangements are largely irrelevant to your suitability for the post of Solicitor General, but perhaps it’s indicative that times haven’t really changed that much.  (The answers, in case you missed them, are coal merchant, hairdresser turned house-husband, and, see previous answer).

In fact, Elish Angiolini wasn’t surprised at the focus of the coverage. “It was natural that as something of a novelty, being the first solicitor, woman and fiscal to be appointed to the post, there would be a high level of media human interest. I think they were more interested in the personal aspect because of the unusual nature of the person appointed to the post rather than the position of Solicitor General itself.”

That was swiftly followed by some rumblings in the media of a rumoured mass resignation of advocate deputes in protest at QCs being overlooked for the post, which gained sufficient credence that Alan Turnbull was moved to write to The Herald on behalf of crown counsel to refute suggestions of “snobbishness and anti-woman and atavistic attitudes”.

Again, the new Solicitor General was pragmatic enough to expect some ructions.

“It’s natural where there is an unexpected change that people who have an  interest will respond. It was evident more in the media rather than anything I personally experienced. I’ve had a significant volume of letters of support and welcome from advocate deputes, members of the Faculty and the judiciary, which diminishes the perception that there is sustained concern about the appointment of a solicitor to the office.

“I understand and appreciate the initial concern. It would be wrong if there had been a unanimous welcome of an appointment like mine. It’s necessary and healthy for change to be questioned and it will increase my accountability to the public because people will be watching more closely how I carry out my responsibilities.”

She admits to feeling a burden of expectation from the solicitor profession. ‘I expect they would feel let down if I were to slip on a banana skin. I’ve had a particularly warm response from the solicitor profession and I hope their expectation isn’t misplaced and I deliver the goods.

“The appointment of a solicitor represents a fresh approach, signalling that change will be made where necessary but that merit and the needs of the system will continue to determine all future appointments.

“There are opportunities, challenges and threats from my appointment, and probably something for every element of the profession to consider. It should stimulate healthy debate about whether or not they need to embrace change”

There is, however, no suggestion that her appointment marks any kind of change in the traditional role of the Solicitor General. There has been some feeling that her post would be akin to the DPP, focused more on administration and management than policy.

“It’s a constitutionally distinct role, not similar to the DPP. You can’t just graft that sort of office on to the system under the Scotland Act. I will be carrying out the same functions as my predecessor, not assuming a management role.

“The emphasis clearly stated by the First Minister has been to influence and drive forward changes to ensure the prosecution system in Scotland can maintain and improve its standing.”

Many of the immediate priorities have been identified by the Campbell and Jandoo reports. Nevertheless, the climate of an underfunded Fiscal service is bound to make implementation of such priorities difficult.

In a letter submitted to the Justice 2 Committee, Crown Agent Andrew Normand wrote that the results of the Pressure Management Inventory “suggest that work-related pressure is having a serious impact on the well-being of many staff and on levels of job satisfaction across the organisation”.

Elish Angiolini said: “Staff are feeling pressure and that has been recognised by the Lord Advocate. As he has stated, there has been a significant increase in resources available to the department in the last three years, but fiscals don’t grow on trees .

“There is an extensive induction and training period before people are sufficiently experienced and expert to operate as a procurator fiscal. It’s not simply the case that they do a law degree and a traineeship and become a fiscal. There is a particular skills base  needed, which requires additional training and immersion in the ethos,  regulations and policy of the prosecution in Scotland. That means there’s a gap - so that while there has been a significant recruitment of additional lawyers, we are still going through that training period with many of them. Additional staff can also represent a burden to some extent in that it puts additional requirements on other staff in dealing with the training and supervision of new recruits.  It is quite clear however that there are additional resource issues as well as resource allocation issues, which are currently subject to major review. That review will be reporting in early spring and will look at how these issues can best be addressed.”

There has been some suggestion that the recruitment process doesn’t attract the best candidates, appointing trainees or older members of the profession who have been frustrated in other career paths.

“I think the standard of fiscals is exceptionally high and it’s a misconception to suggest otherwise. What isn’t always appreciated is the complexity and pressures of the job. There is a presumption that it is similar to other jobs in the profession but fiscals, for example, require a knowledge of forensic medicine, attending post mortems, scenes of murder and the ability to make decisions under pressure taking into account the added complexity of ECHR.”

Next year, the service will be taking on another 16 trainees “at the  highest level of academic achievement” and Elish Angiolini disputes any suggestion about the calibre of other appointments.

“Many people who have a career in one particular sphere in private practice may feel the time has come for a change or feel they need another stimulus. The department also provides a fascinating and creative new challenge for experienced and senior practitioners. Where we have failed is in recruitment from ethnic minorities, but hopefully we now have an environment and recruitment process in place to address that deficiency.”

Public concern about what seems to be a reduced number of cases going through the court system and the increased use of non-court disposals are acknowledged by the new Solicitor General.

“The number of non court disposals depend on the profile of the cases which are reported. We should not look for a uniform result from year to year, it’s a matter for the PF looking at the individual case and using the Lord Advocate’s policy and guidance in prosecutions to determine what is the appropriate disposal. That won’t result in uniformity of result, but uniformity and consistency of approach to decision making in such cases. There can be no stock answer to the suggestion of a reduced number of crimes being prosecuted, a consistent and appropriate approach is needed.

“The ethos is that if a case is capable of being dealt with by way of alternative to prosecution then that is appropriate. This isn’t something the fiscal service  is doing as a frolic of its own, Parliament  has indicated that Fiscal fines are something it wants to have available.  There are also other valuable alternatives such as diversion from prosecution for psychiatric  treatment and social work diversion. We don’t have a desire per se to raise prosecution levels. What we want to achieve is the right decision in each case”

Another area of personal interest is victims’ rights. As regional procurator fiscal for Grampian, Highland and Islands she piloted a victim  liaison scheme which is set to be extended throughout the country. She rejects any suggestion this could compromise the prosecutor’s role.

“The duty and obligation of the prosecutor is to exercise their role independently of any other person and they cannot be subject to any political expediency or  particular lobby. The prosecutor is not a solicitor for the victim. That is not an excuse for insularity or absence of listening or understanding.

“There is no doubt victims have been marginalised in our system over the years. While the emergence of victim support and the witness court service have transformed the experience of victims in a number of cases, there is still an unmet need and the Lord Advocate’s creation of the Victim Liaison Office under the umbrella of the Crown Office is ground breaking.  He recognises the need to ensure victims are not traumatised on a second occasion by the system. The VLO should address the need for information, guidance and support.

“On the public perception of the system, we have historically failed to sell ourselves and get the public to buy into the criminal justice system and to feel they have ownership of the system. Day to day the prosecution are doing a great job in a wide number of cases.  Such work generates column inches every day without recognition of the immense hard work and professionalism behind such stories. But, generally, our part in that work only attracts headlines when things go wrong. We shouldn’t have the slightest complacency about that, but we also have to remind the public more effectively that we have one of the finest prosecution systems in the world.”

So, will she be a hands-on Solicitor General, appearing in the High Court and arguing appeals?

“The main role of the law officers is to provide direction on prosecutions, prosecution policy advice on legislation and legal advice to the Executive, so my ability to prosecute on a regular basis is limited. But the Lord Advocate argued the rape reference in the High Court very recently and I would hope that where there are significant issues I will have an opportunity to argue cases and will aim to do so.

On her experience for the task, “I have 18 years’ experience as a prosecutor and have prosecuted before district courts, sheriff courts and juries as well as investigating major cases. I think my skills base is sufficient for the post at this time.”

Having joined the fiscal department as a trainee, Elish Angiolini’s progress through the ranks is an encouraging story of meritocracy in action. Her fundamental skills as a solicitor as well as experience in policy and legislation as Head of Policy at the Department ought to leave her well equipped for the demands of the position in spite of the reservations of some. She pledges to learn from other jurisdictions but not implement change for change sake. That sounds like a fair start.

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