Our Convenor, Eamon Keane, recently interviewed Angela Grahame QC, the Vice Dean of the Faculty of Advocates. The subjects covered varied from the Faculty’s role in promoting access to justice, to her own personal experiences at the Bar, and her tips for young lawyers.
Her interview is reproduced below.
1. There has been publicly funded litigation in Scotland from the 15th century and the right of the poor to be represented by counsel in criminal cases can be traced to the 16th century. The Faculty’s role in ensuring access to justice has undoubtedly been significant over the course of its history and the development of the Scottish legal system. Do you think there still exists a desire to promote access to justice within the faculty amongst individual members? What is the Faculty doing today in order to promote access to justice?
The answer to the first part of that question is most definitely yes. In the first instance, across the bar you have counsel who are undertaking legal aid work. This is a choice counsel make. This work is paid far less than private commercial work. These cases have profound consequences for those who are being represented. Their liberty is at stake. Accepting instructions in these cases needs to be seen as a public service being offered by counsel.
Then away from the criminal bar you have speculative work or “no win no fee” type cases. These cases might involve catastrophic personal injury. If counsel was not prepared to work on a speculative basis then, there would be a massive access to justice issue as those who do not qualify for legal aid would simply not be represented in these actions. If these cases don’t succeed or don’t settle, then counsel simply do not get paid. Counsel spend large amounts of time and effort on these matters. Of course, counsel try and only take on cases which have reasonable prospects of success, but you cannot always be sure. There is a judgement call involved that you might get wrong. When I first called to the bar in 1995 there was not as much of this type of work about but in the absence of proper funding of legal aid and given the increases in court fees this work is now more common.
Another issue I have a particular interest in is the work of regulatory bodies and this is another area in which the Faculty is helping to improve access to justice. In 2016, when I stood for election as Vice Dean I said I would like to explore the work of these regulatory bodies (such as the Scottish Social Services Council or the “SSSC”). These regulatory bodies have a wide ambit and an important role in Scottish society. We wrote to all of the regulators and asked them if they would like to come and meet with the Dean of Faculty and me. We had a meeting at which they relayed to us their concerns about access to justice. They told us that a lot of individuals who may have fitness to practice hearings often do not attend or attend with lay representation, such as a unqualified relative. There will be a qualified lawyer presenting the case against them. The panel will have legal expertise. Yet there is no legal aid and as such often no legal representation for the person appearing before the panel. These people will often have been suspended by their employers. Insurance is likely not to extend to cover legal representation. Sometimes the unions will help but often they will not be able to as they are under pressure themselves financially. The end result is a lot of individuals are effectively left to their own devices. These people are often the sole bread winners in the families with everything to lose. The pressure can often make these people suicidal. At the Faculty we were really concerned about this from an access to justice perspective. When I started getting involved in this area, I emailed our members asking if anyone was interested in becoming involved with the work of regulatory bodies. Over 80 replied. Then we had a training day which was a big success. Our members were so keen to learn more about this kind of work that we linked up with Aberdeen University who provided our members with a course on regulatory law and practice. This has allowed us to educate ourselves about this particular field and learn much more about the law and types of issues that these panels are interested in. The SSSC has also just appointed legally qualified chairs and a large number of that intake have been advocates. I think this shows again our members willingness to become involved and tackle access to justice related problems.
2. When it comes to access to justice, whilst funding of cases and legal advice plays a large role, suitable court buildings and systems are also important. From your own experience, do you believe that the current Scottish court system is accessible for the average user?
There are two aspects to this. There is the physical accessibility issue and the issue of the recent increase in court fees.
The Lord President is obviously responsible for dealing with the actual physical set up of the buildings so I cannot really comment on that, but I would like to talk about a similar issue I have experience of which shows the importance of accessibility. There is a lift at reception at the Advocates’ Library in Parliament House. It used to be able to take you down to the Dean’s Secretariat in the basement and to the only accessible ladies toilets within the Advocates’ Library. The only other toilets for female members were upstairs in the ladies gown room, with no lift providing access. Some years ago, I raised the point, when I was co-director of Compass Chambers, that if female members have mobility problems, there may be serious accessibility problems. There are toilets for men with mobility problems that are more easily accessible. You may be wondering why the Vice Dean is talking about toilets but bear with me as I do see it as important issue! Before Christmas the issue came to a head as the lift was broken. We made arrangements through the then Faculty Superintendent and the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Services so that a female member who wishes to use accessible toilet facilities would be able to use SCTS facilities in the main part of the building. It might not seem like a big issue, but it is a clear accessibility issue and it’s about giving people dignity. I can also say that I have asked our Chief Executive to look into the possibility of gender neutral toilets. We have an old building but that is no excuse not to consider all options.
With regard to court fees, these have increased significantly and it is my view that this will in the future be shown to have a detrimental impact on the number of people able to use the courts and access to justice. The Faculty has written a Response about court fees to the Scottish Government in this regard raising this as an issue.
3. An important access to justice issue is the accessibility of the law to the average citizen (to the extent that it is clearly defined and easily understood). Do you think that the law is accessible in this sense in Scotland? What role does the Faculty have to play?
I think the Faculty does have a role to play. On an individual basis, it is down to advocates communication skills at consultation. They often have to inform those who instruct us and our clients of the law insofar as it applies to them and their case. On a broader basis, from the outset, the Dean and I thought it was important that the Faculty is a body that people are aware of. We want people to see Faculty as more open and accessible. For years we were viewed as an organisation that sits in an ivory tower and that sits apart from society. There is a commonly held perception that we are all privately educated, male and wealthy. These are preconceived ideas people have but I don’t think the Faculty has helped itself over the years if I’m honest. Enough of us have not gone out and said to people you know what, we have moved on from that. I didn’t go to private school. I’m not male. We are all self employed and our incomes vary significantly. A lot of our members don’t fit the mould people have in their heads. It’s our fault to an extent as we have never adequately reached out to the outside world. The Dean and I wanted to change this. We have written to the royal colleges, regulatory bodies, public bodies and individual people. We go to schools and Universities. We have had a series of meetings about equality and diversity issues with various bodies. We also engaged the services of professional PR consultants. We then had a big dinner called the Dean’s dinner in 2017 to introduce our members and what we do, to members of the public and other bodies. The middle corridor upstairs was cleared of all the desks (that’s a big undertaking given that the library is open 365 days a year 24/7!) We invited outside organisations that we never usually talk to just so they could get to know us better. It was great to meet so many wonderful people and to learn about what they are doing to improve our society. In turn, we got to share with them what our members do. They got to meet the Dean. They got to see our wonderful library. The Dean is himself very down to earth, he’s good with people. He presents a very different face to Faculty than one that has been presented in the past. He’s got a fierce intellect but he’s a very engaging person. He’s very funny. We have also just produced a small video of the calling ceremony. All of this was shrouded in mystery in the past. I know these are only small things but we want to make ourselves more accessible. We were very worried that people didn’t know who we were and what we did and we are trying to change that.
4. Your own practice has involved acting in various high profile public inquiries and personal injury actions along with prosecuting crime at a senior level. What principles have guided the direction of your career?
Being an advocate is a public office. That’s an important part of the job. The element of public service is hugely important. We have to remember we are in a very privileged position. We can earn a lot of money. I simply cannot understand someone who wouldn’t want to give something back. For example, I went into Crown Office in 2003 to prosecute. No-one forces you to do that. You double your work and halve your salary! Of course, you still earn a very good wage. Anyway, I did it because it is a brilliant thing to do. To be able to help society with your skills. I got so much out of it. On a small level, I’ve always wanted to commit time and effort within Faculty to committees etc. So many members of Faculty give up their time to do this. They do not benefit financially, but they do it because they want to contribute something to Faculty or society. Being Vice-Dean is an amazing opportunity to do things for members of Faculty. Not all members are earning a fortune. This role allowed me to get into a position where I could change things. Helping people is a very satisfying part of any job.
5. Access to justice and the rule of law requires a representative legal profession in order to gain the trust of the public. You are the second woman to hold the position of Vice Dean of Faculty, the fifth female office bearer and have spoken candidly about your experiences of sexism at the bar in the past. Do you think sexism and sexual harassment is still a problem at the bar and amongst the profession generally? What is being done to tackle the problem?
This is something I feel really strongly about. I remember on the very first day I was elected. There was a small ceremony. You are formally introduced. I remember I sat in the Dean’s office. We had a quick chat. He said to me “there will be things you want to do?” The first thing I said was “we need a bullying and harassment policy.” I knew there was people who had been harassed and bullied and there was nothing that could really be done about it. Everything was done informally in the past in Faculty. You spoke to your devil master on an ad hoc basis about these things but that was it. So in December 2017 our policy was finally launched. It’s now available online. We never had one before in the history of Faculty at any time since our inception in 1532! Even if I stopped being Vice Dean tomorrow I would be immensely proud of that document. There is at least now a complete framework which people can utilise both formally and informally. One of the things the Dean was keen to start too was a mentoring programme. We have since started a pilot programme in this regard that is going well. I can say also that our diversity and equality committee are incredibly busy, they are one of our most active committees. We have much to do.
If you look at the legal profession. 85% of law students at Edinburgh are female. Across all universities it is 65%. The legal profession is more than 50% female. I met with the Law Society recently and they were saying when some of the older generation retired, the percentage of females in the profession is only going to go up. But look at Faculty. This year we had two devils who are female. Last year we had one. The Faculty is not attracting women at the moment. If this does not change, we will wither from the roots up. We need to do more to attract women. This year there were fourteen silks appointed, yet only two were female. There are issues right across the board. We need to be more proactive. The Faculty has only just completed its second equality and diversity survey. We need to think about what we can do to address these problems. Sexism is a problem right across society. The bar is no different. I want to tackle this problem more effectively. We need to attract the best people. I would like not to be talking about sexism. Why is it that I am only the second female Vice Dean? The Dean has written about these issues in 2017. I think all office bearers at the Faculty need to be being asked about these issues not just me or the females. We all need to realise that we need to do something about this.
6. And finally, as you may be aware, SCOLAG has as its members a large number of students. If you could give those about to embark on their traineeships one bit of advice for a long and happy career in the legal profession, what would it be?
Keep learning and don’t be too critical on yourself. I spent many years going home at night thinking I should have phrased this or that question differently. In reality it probably wouldn’t have made a blind bit of difference! Although to be fair I think it helped me to avoid asking completely disastrous questions most of the time!
Seriously, I think people skills, teamwork and good communication are now seen as three of the key attributes for employers. It’s interesting how times have changed. In the 1970s things like mental arithmetic and the written word would have been seen as more important. I think whilst having good qualifications of course is important in the profession, it is also vitally important to have good people skills. I have had an enormous about of assistance in my career just from being nice to people right across the board. It’s so important. Sorry that’s not really one piece of advice!