In our latest profile to mark 30 years of the Act allowing for solicitor advocates, Alex Prentice QC tells how a defence solicitor who had never contemplated prosecuting became Principal Crown Counsel

Alex PrenticeAfter qualifying as a solicitor, I was offered employment as an assistant in a very high-profile Edinburgh firm which dealt exclusively with criminal work. In those days the quickest way to gain advocacy experience was to appear in the criminal rather than the civil courts, so I jumped at the chance.

As the firm grew, the nature and scope of the work increased significantly and I found myself dealing with some very high profile and important cases from a very early stage.

I frequently instructed counsel in the High Court and admired the way cases were presented. When legislation was brought in to pave the way for solicitors with appropriate experience and qualification to appear in the High Court, I applied.

I was in the second batch of solicitors who, in 1994, acquired rights of audience in the criminal courts. In the course of my work I had been in Parliament House on many occasions along with counsel. I still recall a sense of unease after donning a gown and walking down the corridors of Parliament House, since there were very few of us in those days. I have to say that I met nothing but respect and courtesy from members of Faculty and the judiciary. The work was demanding and, as is often the case in law, events could take an unexpected turn.

In one case, I was instructed to appear for a 16-year-old charged with serious sexual offences alleged to have been committed when he was 13. It occurred to me that there was a significant change between a 13-year-old and a 16-year-old. This was in the relatively early days of challenges being brought under the reasonable time requirement of article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The point was taken and refused at first instance, although it succeeded in the Appeal Court in which I appeared.

To my surprise, I found myself at the receiving end of a Crown Appeal to the judicial committee of the Privy Council which, at that time, sat in Downing Street. The case was taken along with another case, since the Crown sought clarification on the scope of the article 6 requirements.

I considered at the time that a silk should be brought in, but the instructing solicitor was very encouraging and felt that since I had a grasp of the case, I would be best placed to present the appeal. Accordingly, I found myself facing five of the brightest judges in the United Kingdom from a small pedestal in a large room in Downing Street. This was a landmark event which I would never have contemplated on any of the occasions sitting drinking coffee in the common room at Edinburgh Sheriff Court.

In 2003 the then Lord Advocate, now Lord Boyd of Duncansby, invited applications from suitably qualified persons to apply for the post of advocate depute. Several people suggested to me that I should make an application, so I applied to be an ad hoc advocate depute and was subsequently appointed as the first solicitor advocate from outwith COPFS.

My first trial called in Glasgow High Court with me facing five counsel across the table, and the enormity of the task sunk in. However, with adequate preparation and planning, I was able to conduct that trial and found it a very rewarding experience.

A full-time post later became available within Crown Office. I applied for it and was appointed as a trial advocate depute. I was later promoted to senior advocate depute, assistant principal advocate depute and later Principal Crown Counsel.

This was another of those unexpected turns in my career, since I had never contemplated prosecuting. The scope and nature of the work within Crown Office is quite extraordinary: you are exposed to cases and issues which you may never see in private practice. I have appeared in the appeal courts and the UK Supreme Court. All my experiences combined to permit me to apply for the rank and dignity of Queen’s Counsel, which was given to me in 2007.

The work of the Crown is extremely important, and we face significant challenges particularly in light of the pandemic. There is a terrific collegiate atmosphere within Crown Office, and this is especially so amongst the ranks of Crown counsel. We have a good relationship with the defence bar and I am confident that with us all working together we will be able to meet the challenges ahead and ensure that justice is done for all.

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