He keeps his own counsel

The Attorney General played a key role in taking Britain to war. Now he's implementing Tony Blair's criminal justice reforms. But, he tells Robert Verkaik, no one should question his independence
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Peter Goldsmith QC has been in the wars recently. The Government's most senior legal adviser is at the heart of Labour's offensives on terror and crime, as well as conducting his own rearguard action against those who want him to publish his advice on the legality of the war with Iraq. But at the Attorney General's chambers across the road from Buckingham Palace there is a hint of victory in the air which stems from publication of the Butler report into the use of intelligence on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

Peter Goldsmith QC has been in the wars recently. The Government's most senior legal adviser is at the heart of Labour's offensives on terror and crime, as well as conducting his own rearguard action against those who want him to publish his advice on the legality of the war with Iraq. But at the Attorney General's chambers across the road from Buckingham Palace there is a hint of victory in the air which stems from publication of the Butler report into the use of intelligence on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

Sticking his head above the ministerial parapet, Lord Goldsmith says the report has made clear that his advice was not based on the potential threat posed by Iraq but on Saddam's refusal to adhere to resolution 1441. "Butler confirmed that [my advice] was based on the repeated defiance of Saddam Hussein of resolutions on the terms of the unanimous resolution 1441 and his failure to take the final opportunity that was given to him by 1441," Lord Goldsmith says.

Yet there is still pressure on the Government to publish this advice in full. Political opponents argue that the public should be able to judge the whole case for themselves. However, emboldened by Butler, the Attorney General has no intention of setting aside the rules that make his legal opinion to ministers confidential - a convention which has been relaxed only twice before - and this position has won Lord Goldsmith support from his colleagues at the Bar.

Stephen Irwin QC, the chairman of the Bar Council, says: "The report at paragraph 372 bears out our consistent view that it is not in the public interest for the Attorney General's advice to Government to be disclosed, as this would threaten his ability to advise candidly and fully."

Opponents of the war have now switched their attention to the courts, where they hope to obtain judicial authority for publishing Lord Goldsmith's opinion. So far the courts have been unwilling to play ball. Last week, the Court of Appeal ruled in the case of five peace protesters accused of criminal damage who claimed the right to argue that they carried out their actions to resist an illegal war. Much to their dismay the three judges ruled it is "not necessary" to consider the legality of the war in Iraq for the accused to have a defence in law. Lord Goldsmith, understandably relieved at the way the courts have chosen to consider such arguments, accepts that ultimately a judge could order publication of his advice. If that should happen he says he will comply with any legal obligation.

But until then he is concentrating his energies on the fight against crime. In the waiting room of his chambers there is a plastic map of the country that marks out those areas where prosecutors have taken over the responsibility for deciding what charges defendants should face. This is an initiative that has already helped to reduce cracked trials - when a defendant changes his plea from not guilty to guilty before going to trial - which has been a blot on the criminal justice system over the last few years. And last week Lord Goldsmith helped to launch another project aimed at improving the quality of the criminal courts. He was joined by Lord Woolf (the Lord Chief Justice), Lord Falconer (the Lord Chancellor) and Baroness Scotland (a minister at the Home Office), to bring into force a new protocol on handling criminal cases from arrest to sentence. A sceptical public, weary of yet another law and order initiative, may wonder what difference one more will make.

For the Government, however, there is much at stake. It has pledged to bring to justice 1.25 million cases by 2007/8, a rise of 150,000 from current figures. It has also set targets for reducing wasted trial hearings in magistrates courts and crown courts. Lord Goldsmith accepts these are ambitious but "achievable" targets. "The reforms underway in the criminal justice system, embodied in this strategic plan," he says, "will make it a fully joined up, efficient system that gets the charge right first time, protects the innocents and convicts and rehabilitates criminals... The plan is relevant to everyone. Our task now, and our commitment, is to make the plan a reality."

For this to happen, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) will have to play a central role. "I believe this is a new era for prosecutors, the CPS becoming a world class prosecuting service and that's what the people of this country deserve to have. Being fair but firm."

Lord Goldsmith is arguably this country's most high-profile Attorney General. Not only has he been more willing to appear in person in court he has also taken a more aggressive line in challenging unduly lenient sentences. Under Lord Goldsmith, the job description of the Attorney General has changed so that he now has ministerial responsibility for the courts martial system and prosecutions by Customs and Exports. He already has ministerial responsibility for the Crown Prosecution Service, the Serious Fraud Office, prosecutions in Northern Ireland, contempt of court prosecutions and the Treasury Solicitor. Such a wide and expanding range of prosecuting duties has provoked concern that the attorney's independence might be threatened by political influence. Is there now a case for reforming the job of Attorney General, so that he no longer holds a political post?

No, Lord Goldsmith says. "That's not a criticism made very much by people who understand the system because successive attorneys general have made it extremely clear that, when it comes to prosecuting decisions and other public interest decisions, we act separately from government. These are not things that are discussed in cabinet. I would not permit other colleagues to try to influence my decision about a prosecution. These are decisions that are taken robustly, independent on the evidence and in the public interest and not for party political considerations. And that's an absolutely firm tenet and belief in this office. So, I think that people recognise that although there are certain areas where the attorney general has collective responsibility with other ministers, the key is when it comes to these public interest functions it is not collective responsibility."

Such a unique constitutional arrangement goes back hundreds of years and, says Lord Goldsmith, has served the country very well. Some of the attorney's powers and duties are set out by statute while others have been developed by the courts. "There are many cases that recognise the special role the Attorney General has," he says, "and confirm the confidence that the courts have in the independent judgement of the Attorney General."

When historians come to write the story of Britain's war with Iraq there will no doubt be a special chapter devoted to the Attorney General of the day. After all it was his legal advice that permitted Tony Blair to commit troops to the conflict.