A political brief

dominic grieve1 Dominic Grieve discusses his time in office as Westminster’s Attorney General with Peter Cheney, including the on-the-runs dispute, and the case for the European Convention on Human Rights.

After four years of being “a very silent Minister at the best of times” in his role as Attorney General, Dominic Grieve can now be more vocal on the major legal and constitutional issues facing the UK.

While the precise title of the role is Attorney General for England and Wales, the office holder is also Advocate General for Northern Ireland and therefore advises the UK Government on legal issues in the province. The most prominent part of this role was his involvement in the R v Downey judgment which revealed the on-the-runs scheme.

Grieve consented to Downey being charged in May 2013 as he wanted the matter to be tested in court. The High Court ruled last February that Downey could not be prosecuted because of the previous written guarantee that he had received. Along with the prosecutors, Grieve concluded that there was no prospect of a successful appeal.

“It was a difficult matter,” he recalls, “but one on which I think the CPS took all the right decisions and, at the same time, you respect the outcome determined by the court.”

When it is put to him that a similar scheme would have been unacceptable in England, Grieve puts it in the context of the peace process. “I know there are issues about who knew what [and] when, which I think are unfortunate in the sense that I think that greater transparency would have been much more desirable,” he comments.

Previous attorneys-general strongly insisted that the scheme should not operate as an amnesty and ensured that was the case. Pressed on whether the Coalition Government should have made the scheme more transparent from 2010 onwards, Grieve remarks that it was run by the Northern Ireland Office with his office acting as the liaison between the NIO and the Public Prosecution Service.

“I’m very pleased it’s been ended,” Grieve adds, “but as I say, it never amounted to an amnesty but what the Downey case shows is that it was not being operated properly. I am totally sympathetic to the anger registered in Northern Ireland – and indeed not just in Northern Ireland but in the mainland UK as well – about what happened.”

Progress

Grieve “greatly enjoyed” holding the office, which he describes as a varied and intense job. Essentially, the role is threefold (see box). His advisory role is “something which is difficult to talk about even afterwards because it’s confidential” but the work mainly relates to international, European and constitutional law.

The Crown Prosecution Service (covering England and Wales) has experienced a 30 per cent budget reduction since 2010 and he takes “some quiet satisfaction” in managing the process of change. “That’s not to say that there aren’t further challenges,” he adds, “and I worry about the future really, about how much more could reasonably be made in savings from it without endangering the service altogether – but that’s going to be a problem for my successor.”

Contempt of court, unexpectedly, became a very live issue once he took office, partly because some elements of the press “were completely out of control when it came to covering criminal cases and it really had to be reined in.”

He found that journalists had little understanding of the law and he successfully prosecuted the Sun, Mirror and Daily Mail for contempt of court. Grieve comments: “My hope is that, by the end of the process, the press felt more confident that those ground rules were more clear [and] helped them to see what they could and couldn’t do and then, at the same time, avoided my having to prosecute the press.”

Juror contempt is also increasing, with jurors being prosecuted for researching case-related information on the internet: “It’s not something I enjoyed doing at all but again I hope that it sent out a clear message about what you can and cannot do.” Clearer directions from judges have also helped.

Pacemaker Press 10/12/2014: The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is launching its Annual Statement on International Human Rights Day (10th December).  The Commission is delighted to welcome the former Attorney General for England & Wales. (L-R) Deputy Speaker Mr John Dallas MLA, Les Allamby Chief Commissioner NIHRC and RT Hon Dominic Grieve pictured at the Human Rights Launch at Storming in Belfast.
Picture By Arthur Allison. Europe

A strong defender of the European Convention on Human Rights, Grieve thinks that the UK public does not understand its relevance and importance. The convention has become a “convenient scapegoat for public irritation” about the EU although it is actually totally separate. It was drafted by the Council of Europe – which brings together almost all European countries – as a safeguard for human rights after the Second World War and was signed in 1950. The European Court of Human Rights was subsequently established in Strasbourg in 1959.

Grieve acknowledges its errors and disagrees with the judgment on granting the right to vote to prisoners. However, he adds that pulling out from the convention would cause “colossal” damage to the UK’s international standing on human rights issues. A UK withdrawal would have constitutional consequences e.g. as the convention is cited in the Good Friday Agreement.

“I find it difficult to see how that would be to our advantage,” he contends. “It would be precipitating a whole range of problems that, I think, are unnecessary.” The UK has already initiated a reform programme in the court, designed to filter out “hopeless cases,” improve its throughput and the calibre of its judges, and encourage the court to approach its work in a more balanced way.

He notes that it is paying more attention to UK judgments as a result and more dialogue is taking place. “I think we have to be a bit careful about achieving defeat out of the jaws of victory,” he says, “when I happen to think we are achieving many of the positive changes in how the court works.”

Attorney General’s role

• Chief legal advisor to UK Government

• Oversight of the Crown Prosecution Service

• Challenging unduly lenient sentences

Confident future ahead

Against a backdrop of “negativity” about the UK’s future prospects, Dominic Grieve sees a brighter future ahead. The sense of anxiety, he comments, is genuine and manifested in a drive among some groups to “compartmentalise themselves off” (Scottish nationalism) or to “cut themselves off” from Europe, and also in worries about immigration and the general pace of change.

“If we can get our economy right, we’re rather good at integrating newcomers,” he states, “and if we build our infrastructure, I think we can deliver a high quality of life for all of our citizens – higher than we enjoy at the moment – and there’s a really bright future for our children and grandchildren.” Negativity about the future is, in his view, the biggest challenge for any mainstream party but he contends that David Cameron is good at conveying a positive message about Britain’s future.

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