Select Committee on Justice Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 32-39)


10 JUNE 2008

  Q32 Chairman: Attorney General and Mr Jones, welcome. We are very glad to have you with us this afternoon. Do all holders of the post of Attorney General tend to move towards the view that the functions they exercise should all be kept in the hands of themselves and future Attorneys General or have you engaged in an analysis which starts from the question, "What powers have I got and what kind of individual should be exercising those powers"?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I think certainly when I was entrusted with this consultation we were absolutely open. You will have noticed that in the original consultation document there were no preferred options, no real suggestions, we were going to listen and to see and the one criterion that we were going to apply was whether the changes that were contemplated were likely to enhance the confidence in the office and the preservation of the rule of law. Our whole purpose in undertaking this review was to test whether the system we have now is the best system that could be devised for the future. Therefore, there was certainly no part of our consideration that the status quo should remain because it was the status quo, it was a totally open, frank and comprehensive assessment. Of course, as you will know, Chairman, this is the first real review of the role of the Attorney General for probably 700 years, but certainly for this generation.

  Chairman: Right. Let us start to look at the details. Mrs James?

  Q33  Mrs James: Why should the Attorney General not give up any ministerial responsibility for criminal policy? Is this function consistent with the legal functions of the Attorney General?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I think it is. What we did was we looked very much as to the role that the Attorney has played historically but also, particularly, the role that the Attorney has played most recently. You know there was the Lord Justice Auld Review in terms of whether the criminal justice system that we had was the best it could be and you remember that at that stage Auld was saying that we were not operating as a criminal justice system but were acting in silos. The whole point was to make sure that each part of the system worked in a better and conjoined way. It is a bit like having a stool which has three legs and if one of the legs is not operating properly you tend to fall over. What has happened, certainly since 2003 with the creation of the National Criminal Justice Board and now the Crime and Reduction Board that we have introduced, is we have tried to make better sense of the criminal justice system for the citizen and look at it through their eyes and think how we can work together. Having an Attorney General whose main focus is going to be on prosecutorial authority and the roles that they play is very important. Certainly if you look at the improvements that we have been able to make in the criminal justice system as a whole, those improvements have been predicated upon the Ministry of Justice working hand in glove with the Home Office and working with us as the prosecutors, trying to make the system have the most integrity that we can cull from the opportunities that we have before us. It is that experience which has really influenced the role that the Attorney will play and has played in the recent past which is to the benefit of the citizen.

  Q34  Mrs James: We know there has been a great deal of criticism and debate about splitting up the role of the Attorney General.

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: Yes.

  Q35 Mrs James: Why not give the responsibility to a junior minister in the Ministry of Justice, for example, where we would be able to ensure those areas of responsibility?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I think because the reality is there is still a degree of tension between the different roles and it is creative and appropriate tension. For example, the prosecutor will have to be focused on two issues, firstly whether there are sufficient facts to justify a prosecution and, secondly, whether it is in the public interest to prosecute. It is important that separate and distinct balance be retained, and I just give you an example. We changed the role of the prosecutor to make the prosecutor the person who is responsible for making the charging decision. That will be a position which may not be entirely comfortable always for the other parts of the system. Having someone separately who will give voice to the important role that the prosecutor will have to have on behalf of the individual citizen that these matters will be pursued, I think, is really important. It has to be, I would respectfully suggest, of equal status to the other parts of the system which are going to be looked at. The police, of course, are going to be well catered for in terms of the Home Office. The prisons, probation and, indeed, the courts have a strong voice coming out of the MoJ. The prosecuting voice, which is a separate and distinct voice, has to have its place too if that three-legged stool is to remain balanced.

  Q36  Chairman: Just for clarity, what you are arguing there is that the role of the superintendence of prosecutions which you exercise is a ministerial role.

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: Yes.

  Q37  Chairman: Whether exercised by you or anybody else, the person doing it obviously has a contribution to make to the criminal justice policy?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I think that is to conflate, if I may respectfully say so, the policy and the independent role that the Attorney discharges in relation to superintendence and supervision of the prosecutor qua prosecutor. It is a separate role. The distinction when I am talking about the three-legged stool is when it comes to criminal justice policy and the role that the prosecutor will play in that system. In the system we have changed, as you know, the role of the prosecutor. Before the prosecutor was not allowed to have direct contact with the individual victim and witness, they were not allowed to consult in that way—

  Q38  Chairman: I think you are getting beyond the point I am trying to get you to address which is to just clarify—I am not trying to disagree with you—that you define the role you currently exercise as the person who superintends overall the prosecution services.

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: It is.

  Q39  Chairman: Insofar as that is not about individual cases, not about what resources the prosecution service have got to do particular things, for example, that is clearly a ministerial function.

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: Yes, it is.

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