Law Officers of the Crown
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The Law Officers of the Commonwealth are the chief legal advisers to the Crown, and advise and represent the central and devolved governments in the United Kingdom and national and sub-national governments in other Commonwealth realms.
In England and Wales, Northern Ireland and most Commonwealth and colonial governments, the chief law officer of the Crown is the Attorney General. In England and Wales the Attorney General is supported by the Solicitor General. Following devolution of justice to the Scottish Parliament a new position of Advocate General for Scotland was created to advise the UK Government on matters of Scots law. So there are three UK Government Law Officers: the Attorney General, the Solicitor General and the Advocate General for Scotland.
There are also two Scottish Government Law Officers. In Scotland, the chief law officer to the Scottish Government and the Crown in Scotland is the Lord Advocate. The Lord Advocate is supported by the Solicitor General for Scotland.
England and Wales
The Attorney General for England and Wales, a member of the UK Government, is similarly the chief law officer of the Crown in England and Wales and advises and represents the Crown and government departments in court. By convention, and unlike the papers of other ministers, this legal advice is available to subsequent governments. In the second half of the 20th century it became unusual for the Attorney General to be formally a member of the Cabinet. Rather he/she would attend only when the Cabinet required legal advice.
The Attorney General oversees the small Attorney General's Office and also has responsibility for the Government Legal Department, which is headed by the Treasury Solicitor. In practice, the Treasury Solicitor (who also has the title of Procurator General) normally provides the lawyers or briefs Treasury Counsel to appear in court, although the Attorney General may appear in person. The person appointed to this role provides legal advice to the Government, acts as the representative of the public interest and resolves issues between government departments. The Government Legal Department provides advice to Government Departments, instructing independent counsel where necessary. The Attorney General is a barrister and can appear in court in person, though in practice he/she rarely does so, and then only in cases of outstanding national importance. In those cases the Government Legal Department provides his back-up. When appearing in court in person he/she is addressed by the judge as "Mr Attorney".
The Attorney General also has supervisory powers over prosecutions, including those mounted by the Crown Prosecution Service, headed by the Director of Public Prosecutions; the Serious Fraud Office; and the Revenue and Customs Prosecutions Office. While the Attorney General is not personally involved with prosecutions, some prosecutions (e.g. riot) cannot be commenced without their consent, and they have the power to halt prosecutions generally. Criminal prosecutions are the responsibility of the Crown Prosecution Service, headed by the Director of Public Prosecutions. The Attorney General may appeal cases to the higher courts where, although the particular case is settled, there may be a point of law of public importance at issue.
The Attorney General has public interest functions, being, for example, the trustee of default where a sole trustee has died, and can also take cases to the Supreme Court where points of general legal importance need to be settled.
The Attorney General's deputy is the Solicitor General for England and Wales, currently Robert Buckland. Under the Law Officers Act 1997, the Solicitor General may do anything on behalf of, or in the place of, the Attorney General, and vice versa.
Under the recent constitutional reforms, the Lord Advocate has become an officer of the Scottish Government, while the United Kingdom Government is advised on Scots law by the Advocate General for Scotland. The Lord Advocate, currently James Wolffe, heads the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service and is the chief public prosecutor in Scotland. The Lord Advocate is assisted by the Solicitor General for Scotland, currently Alison Di Rollo.
Since the prorogation of the Parliament of Northern Ireland in 1972, the Attorney General for England and Wales was also Attorney General for Northern Ireland. The separate office of Attorney General for Northern Ireland was re-created alongside the new office of Advocate General for Northern Ireland upon the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly on 12 April 2010. As a result, these functions were split between:
- The Advocate General for Northern Ireland, who is the chief legal adviser to the UK Government on Northern Ireland law. The post is held by the Attorney General for England and Wales by virtue of office.
- The Attorney General for Northern Ireland, who is the chief legal adviser to the Northern Ireland Executive. John Larkin QC was appointed to that position on 24 May 2010 by the First Minister of Northern Ireland and deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.
Most Commonwealth and colonial governments also have their own attorneys general. Sometimes the legal advisers of subnational governments are given the title advocate general. In Hong Kong, apart from the Solicitor General and the Crown Prosecutor (the Director of Public Prosecutions before 1997), there are also the Law Officer (Civil), the Law Officer (International) and the Law Draftsman. All these five offices are "Law Officers" reporting to the Attorney General (known since 1997 as the Secretary for Justice).
In Canada the term law officers are not used, but the title holders with similar roles are:
- Minister of Justice is also the Attorney General of Canada
- Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, who was formerly the Solicitor General of Canada
Some subjects are entitled to have an attorney general: these include a queen consort and the Prince of Wales, who has an Attorney General for the Duchy of Cornwall. There is also an Attorney General for the Duchy of Lancaster, which is a mostly landed inheritance that is held by the Crown (in trust for the monarch) and administered independently of the monarch under the supervision of a government minister, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
Before the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, the legal advisers to the Crown in the Courts of Ireland were the Attorney-General for Ireland and the Solicitor-General for Ireland. These offices became redundant in 1921.
The Crown also had a legal adviser for the High Court of Admiralty, known as the Admiralty Advocate, but this office lapsed in 1875 when the Admiralty Court became part of the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division of the High Court of Justice.
The Crown's representative in the ecclesiastical courts of England was the King's Advocate (or Queen's Advocate when the monarch was female). This office has been vacant since the resignation of its last holder in 1872.
- Attorney General's Office: Statement on Northern Ireland devolution, 12 April 2010 Archived 5 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine.
- section 22, Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 (c.26)
- OFMDFM: Appointment of Attorney General announced, 24 May 2010 Archived 24 April 2011 at the Wayback Machine.
- Haydn's Book of Dignities, 1894