From an East End working class background to the highest legal post in the land, Baroness Scotland talks to Corinne McPartland about her epic journey.
Baroness Scotland has had a fight on her hands ever since she was appointed Attorney General back in June 2007. Not only was she the first black woman to fill the post since it was created in 1315, she was also charged with restoring public confidence in the role.
When her predecessor, staunch Blairite Lord Goldsmith, resigned he left behind him a shaky public image of the role of Attorney General. Goldsmith will largely be remembered for a series of controversial decisions he made during his six-year tenure not least his notorious advice on the legality of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and his role in the decision to drop the investigation into alleged corrupt dealings between BAE Systems and the Saudi government.
But proving people wrong is something that comes naturally to Scotland, as she has had to constantly swim against the tide to get to where she is today.
“I was state educated, I came from Walthamstow, I didn’t go to Oxbridge, I’m black, I’m female, I’m a socialist,” says Scotland, leaning back in her red leather chair (a new addition to the previously dark and masculine office she moved into). “If I had one leg and been homosexual I think I would have had everything.”
But going into the legal profession was not always top of Scotland’s dream job list. She claims she had always wanted to be a modern expressionist ballet dancer right up until she was 17 years old.
“I loved dancing, it was the only thing that lit up my life and I wanted to do more than anything at all. But basically my parents wouldn’t let me,” explains Scotland.
Born in 1955 in Dominica, the tenth of 12 children, Scotland came to the UK when she was two and was raised in Walthamstow, East London.
“I was growing up in London in the late 1950s, and England in those days had quite limited aspirations for black kids. You could run, you could dance, but you couldn’t have any job which involved intellectual rigour, and my father was really clear that I had a brain and I had to use it. I’m a disappointed ballerina.”
“I stopped dancing when I was 17 and I haven’t danced since,” explains Scotland.
But bolstered by her parents, who she hails as inspirational, she put down her dancing shoes and went in search of a career that would satisfy her sense of justice and social responsibility.
“My father was forever saying that God had given every single one of us a talent and it’s our job to find what that talent is, to hone it and then use it for the benefit of other people,” she recalls. “He thought that if we came into the world we had to make it better, and if we couldn’t make it better we had to make absolutely sure we didn’t do it any harm.”
So after undertaking a law degree at Mid Essex Technical College (now Anglia Ruskin University) Scotland had to decide whether to train as a barrister or a solicitor.
She smiles as she remembers. “I realised that I liked to be the final arbiter,” she says. “I like to be the person who makes the final decision and I never thought I’d be very good at being employed by anybody. That was the thing that made me think I’d rather go for the bar.”
But the UK was a very different place back then and expectations of people from ethnic minorities were fairly low. Not only was Scotland a woman, she was also black and had been state educated. So she is, she says, used to confronting other peoples preconceptions about her.
But the harsh criticism she received throughout her training only fed her ambition and desire to prove her doubters wrong. She even remembers being told that there was a direct pecking order at the bar: white males, black males, white females and then black females.
“I wasn’t afraid of failing because I’d been brought up to believe that there was no disgrace in failure. The disgrace was in not having tried,” recalls Scotland.
At 35 she became the youngest-ever female QC and the youngest person to take silk since William Pitt the Younger.
Since becoming Attorney General Scotland has championed many issues close to her heart, including acting against domestic violence. As a young barrister in the 1970s she became aware of just how prevalent a problem it was while she was practising family law.
“It was a real privilege to be in a situation where women recovered. Especially to watch a woman, who had no sense of self and had been totally destroyed by what had happened to her during her marriage, grow and change. It’s about watching peoples lives be transformed by the protection that the law can give,” she says.
Scotland has presided over a programme to help tackle domestic violence, which has included the introduction of specialist sexual advisers who are attached to courts to help victims alleging rape or other sexual violence, as well as domestic assaults. The project works with local teams made up of specialist magistrates, prosecutors, trained police and support agencies.
“We knew we had to change their confidence levels, because quite often when women are battered they end up going back to their abusers again because they don’t feel they have choices,” explains Scotland. “They really need someone to stand with them, to plan it with them and to say, ‘Look, you can do this.’ And when this happens you can see a woman be totally changed by the experience.”
She claims her efforts have made a huge difference. There’s been a 59 per cent decline in the incidence of domestic violence between 1997 and 2007-08. Furthermore, the success rate on prosecuting domestic violence continues to improve, she enthuses.
The experience she gained from working as a minister for the Home Office, where she had responsibility for the crime reduction strategy and youth crime, helped her to understand just how domestic violence has a knock-on effect on society as a whole.
When she looked more closely at the backgrounds of the women who had been incarcerated at Holloway Prison in North London, she found that 89 per cent of them had a history of being victim to domestic violence or sexual abuse.
Then she looked at male prisons and the youth justice system and found that a disproportionate number of those men and children came from homes that were blighted by domestic violence.
“When you talk to them and peel it back, its because they’ve had dysfunctional relationships,” asserts Scotland. “So addressing domestic violence was clearly going to impact on a number of victims, who then became perpetrators of crime and ended up in our prisons.”
It is clear that the capacity to help protect children and women is an element of the role of Attorney General that Scotland takes particularly seriously, not least as a mother of two school-age children.
She introduced the crime of familial homicide, which closed a legal loophole that allowed those jointly accused of the murder of a child or vulnerable adult to escape justice by remaining silent or blaming each other. This charge was used in the recent Baby P case.
“One of the things that had really upset me during the years of doing children’s cases was that so many people were killing children and getting away with it,” she says. “So if you had two or three people who were engaged in the death of a child, because you weren’t able to say which of them it was if they just kept silent, basically they were let off.”
“I created and I take full responsibility for all those people who don’t like it – familial homicide, because I thought there must be a way of making those who are culpable and responsible, responsible in law.”
Pro bono is another issue that Scotland had clearly marked on her to do list as Attorney General. She has recently launched an international database of pro bono work with the aim of encouraging best practice in the field.
Scotland says the database will enable those working on international pro bono projects to take a more strategic approach to the work. In addition, she thinks it will be a valuable tool for attracting new legal resources.
“The international pro bono database will really make a difference, because I think were globally responsible for one another. The rule of law can’t just prevail in this country – it has to mean something,” she claims.
But Scotland does not just think pro bono work should start with international law firms. She believes that it is part of every good lawyers DNA and that it should be carried out by students in a bid to make their studies come to life.
“I’d recommend every single law student to get involved with a law clinic at university. And if their university hasn’t got one, I recommend that they go and make one. Most universities that have done this have seen that those who participate in law clinics do about 25 per cent better than anybody else,” she enthuses.
Talking with Scotland, you get caught up in her infectious sense of humour, enthusiasm for her career and what she stands for. But how does this highly powered woman manage to juggle being a parent, a wife and the country’s top legal adviser? Surely her story is not reflective of what is really going on with women at the bar?
“I think that all of us on either side of the profession realise that it gets harder as you get more senior because the hours get longer, and therefore trying to get that work-life balance gets harder. I’m always espousing the benefits of work-life balance, but I try really hard not to think about mine,” laughs Scotland.
“Although top City law firms are lacking in female talent at the top of the food chain, 41 per cent of women working in the Civil Service are in senior roles,” claims Scotland.
“It’s important to have the option of flexi-working, either working from home or part-time,” she insists. “We have senior women doing senior jobs part-time. We’ve been able to keep hold of our women because we’ve created an environment that enables them to look after their kids, have a life and do some fantastic work for this country.”
As our interview comes to a close I ask Scotland if she has any parting words of advice for all those who have not gone to the right school, or even been born under the right postcode and are still desperate to reach for their dreams.
She smiles and tells me that is an easy question to answer. “Be true to yourself, really focus and don’t be discouraged because people say you cant do things, she says. If I’d listened to all the people who said I can’t, I wouldn’t have done anything. Just remember that if you have the talent, courage and passion, you can, you can, you can.”
The Attorney General’s remit
The Attorney General is the Government’s chief legal adviser, advising on domestic and international law.
Baroness Scotland oversees the small Attorney General’s Office and also has responsibility for the Treasury Solicitors Department, which acts on her behalf when representation in court is required.
Scotland also has supervisory powers over prosecutions, including the Crown Prosecution Service, the Serious Fraud Office and the Revenue and Customs Prosecutions Office.
The Attorney General role also has public interest functions. The Baroness can, for example, refer unduly lenient sentences to the Court of Appeal and intervene in certain proceedings to protect charities.