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Common Law Review
 
Dom arrow lnky arrow Issue 1 - The British Constitution arrow 06: Robert Seaton - A Monster of the Constitution: Scotland's Lord Advocate
06: Robert Seaton - A Monster of the Constitution: Scotland's Lord Advocate PDF Tisk E-mail

A Monster of the Constitution

Scotland's Lord Advocate

 

Robert Seaton

 

 

Scotland's Lord Advocate combines the roles of government minister, chief prosecutor and, by convention, judge-maker. The office is liable to cause upset to those who believe in the constitutional separation of powers. Perhaps the best explanation for the existence of the office is that it dates from a time when little account was taken of constitutional niceties.

 

The position of Lord Advocate was a great office of state in Scotland before the English union with England. The original function was that of public prosecutor. By an Act of the Scottish Parliament of 1587, the Lord Advocate gained the power to prosecute "although the parties be silent or would privily agree". He thus became, in criminal cases, the "master of the instance", that is to say that he could decide whether to prosecute and in which court to prosecute. This function has grown now into not just the prosecution, but the investigation of crime and the circumstances of deaths.

 

Unlike the other Scottish offices of state, that of the Lord Advocate thrived after the union with England of 1707. Though the Scottish Parliament was submerged in the English Parliament, other Scottish institutions, including the legal system, remained intact. The Lord Advocate's power to prosecute meant it was largely for him to interpret the public law of Scotland on behalf of the Government. Moreover, Scotland's politics in the eighteenth century were remote and incomprehensible to most ministers in England and the holder of the post became a channel of communication between Scotland and the government in London. The forceful Henry Dundas, Lord Advocate 1775-1783, gathered patronage to the office. He boasted of his power to appoint even the "tide-waiters" (customs officers) in Scotland and was known popularly as "King Henry". In 1822, the Edinburgh Review claimed that offices worth 90,000 pounds a year were in the Lord Advocate's gift, most significantly, those of Scottish judges. Litigators of the time would not employ lawyers who did not support the government party for fear of losing their case.

 

The power of the Lord Advocate was demonstrated in 1793, when facing popular agitation for reform of the franchise, the Lord Advocate, Robert Dundas, nephew of Henry, not only secured from Parliament a suspension of the Act against Wrongous Arrest (Scotland's counterpart of Habeas Corpus) but also invented the new crime of sedition to try the ringleaders. Though Dundas saw off the reformers in 1793, a failed attempt to do the same in 1817 by Lord Advocate Maconochie brought odium on the office, and meant it was a target for the Whig reformers who took power in 1830. Many executive powers of the Lord Advocate passed to the Home Office in London, then in 1885 to the newly formed Scottish Office but the office of Lord Advocate survived focused on legal affairs, however, and in 1999 became part of the cabinet in Scotland's newly autonomous government.

 

As chief prosecutor, the Lord Advocate heads the prosecution service, the Crown Office, and it acts in his name. He sets prosecution policy and personally conducts the prosecution in important cases, such as the trial of the two Libyans suspected of planting the bomb that destroyed Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in December 1988.

 

Since Scottish criminal law is largely judge-made, the Lord Advocate, by deciding whether or not to prosecute, greatly influences the development of the criminal law. Furthermore, where he feels that the law in case has been stated wrongly and the accused has been acquitted, the Lord Advocate has the power to refer the point of law to the Appeal Court, and the courts ruling will be a precedent for future cases on that point. Since the Lord Advocate can choose the court in which a trial is to take place, and different courts have different sentencing powers, they have a significant say in what the sentence will be in any given case. They may decide whether or not to use a jury, which is important because it is notoriously harder to convict an accused person before a jury.

 

Yet this chief prosecutor is a member of the governing party, sits with the Scottish cabinet, and enters and leaves office with it. Should such powers be in the hands of a politician? A politician is naturally subject to pressures such as saving money and securing more convictions. This could, for instance, be done by using juries less frequently. Moreover, a politician who finds his opponents tiresome might not want to wait for an election to visit a defeat on them. To be fair, no allegations of such abuse of power have been made recently, but the potential remains. There is no more constitutional check on political prosecutions now than there was in the eighteenth century. And what is to stop the Lord Advocate from halting investigation or prosecution of political friends?

 

There are safeguards against pressure being placed on the chief prosecutor by his government colleagues. By a convention now enacted in the Scotland Act 1998, while the Lord Advocate has collective responsibility with the government for its decisions, he must take decisions on prosecutions and investigation of deaths independently of any other person. For the first year of home rule, the Lord Advocate was a voting member of the Scottish Cabinet. The new Scottish First Minister has removed the Lord Advocate's vote partly so as to underline his independence.

 

The post of Lord Advocate is entrenched in law to prevent encroachment on prosecutions by the Scottish Parliament. The powers of public prosecution cannot be removed from the Lord Advocate by Act of the Scottish Parliament nor can the post be abolished, and thus Parliament cannot instruct the Lord Advocate who to prosecute. Thus the Scottish executive and legislative powers are shut out of prosecution decisions. But there is no such rule for the UK Parliament.

 

The law officers (the Lord Advocate and his deputy, the Solicitor General) are appointed in a different way from other Scottish ministers. All Scottish ministers other than the law officers are appointed by the First Minister with the approval of the Queen and the assent of the Scottish Parliament. The law officers are appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of the First Minister with the assent of Parliament. The Queen always acts on the advice of her ministers, so at first glance, it would appear there is no real difference in the appointment of the law officers. But the Queen has both Scottish ministers and United Kingdom ministers. What would happen if they gave her differing advice? The UK government may thus be able to veto the First Minister's choice of Lord Advocate.

 

Unlike other ministers, the Lord Advocate requires qualifications. He must be a qualified lawyer and is traditionally a member of the faculty of advocates (the equivalent of an English barrister). The expertise required has meant there have been times when the Lord Advocate had no political sympathy with the party in power. As early as 1829 the Tories appointed a reforming Whig, Jeffrey, on account of his expertise and the first Labour government in 1924 had no supporters at all in the faculty of advocates so had to appoint a non-party lawyer.

 

Nevertheless, the Lord Advocate's job depends on the government staying in power. So what prevents him from using his power, quite independently and free of pressure from others, deliberately for the government's benefit? The Lord Advocate is answerable to the Scottish Parliament for his decisions, but by convention he does not answer questions on individual cases, only on policy. Thus, if he uses fewer juries, he may be questioned on the policy, but not on his decision to send a particular case to a particular court.

 

There can be no judicial review of the Lord Advocate's decision not to prosecute or investigate, but there is a very limited possibility of private prosecution, with the permission of the High Court. Thus if the Lord Advocate were to refuse to prosecute his friend, who had attacked me, I might be able to take out a private prosecution.

 

But even when one gets to court, one faces judges effectively appointed by the Lord Advocate. Formally, the First Minister of Scotland advises the Queen on appointment of all but the top two judges. The Queen appoints the latter on the advice of the UK Prime Minister on nominations of the First Minister. In actual fact, by convention the Lord Advocate tells the First Minister and Prime Minister who to appoint, and they do as he says. The Lord Advocate decides on the candidates by a process of making unofficial "soundings" of likely candidates. Who he "sounds" and who he leaves out of consideration, no one knows. It is a system that has produced a bench with few women and no ethnic minorities. But the system does provide the best perk of the Lord Advocate's job: he can, and frequently does, appoint himself.

 

In other jurisdictions, the legal world might look somewhat askance at such judicial self-selection. In Scotland, however, it is nothing unusual. In fact, since 1916, fifteen Lord Advocates have appointed themselves judges. Three appointed themselves directly to the highest judicial office in the land, that of Lord President. It is often said with some justice that Lord Advocates tend to be well qualified. This is true, but not universally. It might be said rather cynically that judicial self-appointment is a further safeguard of the Lord Advocate's independence. If he finds his position intolerable in government, he can always move himself to a better job on the bench.

 

There are two further formal constitutional problems: first, should the chief prosecutor appoint judges? Second, should a member of the government appoint judges? The question of whether the chief prosecutor should appoint the judges has been partly dealt with by the case of Starrs v Ruxton. In Starrs, a challenge was made, under human rights legislation securing the right to a fair trial, to the chief prosecutor appointing temporary judges who were dependent on him for their continuation in office. It was decided that where an appointment was permanent, that was sufficient to secure judicial independence. There may be a further challenge to a higher court to the Lord Advocate's appointments of permanent judges, since while they may be independent of the prosecutor, still owe their office to him.

 

The appointment of judges by politicians is uncomfortable, but not illegal under human rights law. In McGonnell v UK, a case decided in February 2000 before the European Court of Human Rights, it was held that where a judge had had direct participation in passing legislation, that was likely to cast doubt on their impartiality in interpreting it. This might possibly extend to the Lord Advocate given his role in drafting legislation for the Executive.

 

With devolution, judges will more frequently have to take decisions on the actions of government, and particularly value judgements of whether its actions have breached human rights. Recently, a quarrying company that had waited nine years for a planning decision sought a court order, relying on its right to a fair hearing, to require the government to give it a decision within a reasonable time (Lafarge Redland Aggregates Petitioners (2000)). Lord Hardie, the judge found against the government and called its behaviour scandalous. But he had previously been Lord Advocate in the administration he was finding against. If his decision had favoured the government, would justice have been seen to be done?

 

Home rule has brought scrutiny to a post that previously existed in the shadows of a little-examined Scottish administration. It appears that while he is still a minister, he is losing his cabinet role. And the days of the Lord Advocate as judge-maker may now be numbered. A government paper has suggested a judicial appointments commission, that would advertise judicial vacancies, receive applications and publish a shortlist before choosing.            

Robert Seaton

Robert Seaton graduated in law from Edinburgh University in 2000. He currently teaches constitutional law at Edinburgh University and is a researcher on justice for the Scottish National Party.

 
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