Statue of the scales of justice

James Hand, Reader in Law and Associate Head (Research and Innovation) in the Faculty of Business and Law, discusses the possible implications of the appointment of Victoria Prentis as the Attorney General in October 2022.

James Hand

5 minutes

Last year saw a number of political peculiarities, not least the high number of changes in the holders of political posts in the UK Government, with circumstances leading to there being, during the calendar year, five successive Secretaries of Education, four Chancellors of the Exchequer, and three Prime Ministers. 

The UK Law Officers were not immune from the flux, with three people holding the role of Solicitor General for England & Wales in 2022 (or, indeed, due to arrangements for maternity cover, five in the twelve-months up to the appointment of the last on the 7th September) as well as three people being Attorney General. However, such quick changes in the law officers, while not common, is far from unprecedented and the appointment of Victoria Prentis in late October may also point to a more conventional approach to the role of Attorney General. 

While 1868 was the last time there were three different Prime Ministers (two Conservative followed by one Liberal) and there have been, since the start of Queen Victoria’s reign, only three years which saw three Chancellors of the Exchequer (in the general election years of 1868 again, 1886 and 1924) and seven years which had three education secretaries (and none with more of either), there have been a dozen years since the 1837 when there have, as in 2022, been three, or on two occasions four, different solicitors general (three since the end of the second world war) and nine years with three different attorneys general (although the last of those was over 70 years ago).

Such quick changes in the law officers, while not common, is far from unprecedented and the appointment of Victoria Prentis in late October may also point to a more conventional approach to the role of Attorney General.

James Hand, Reader in Law

A modern trend

As examined in The Attorney-General, politics and logistics – a fork in the road? (2022), the nature of the role of attorney-general and its holders has changed over the years. The ministerial role has increased markedly, the governmental advisory role is retained though necessarily delegatable as topics become more varied and complex, the separate parliamentary role seems reduced and the litigatory role limited by logistics, experience and increased politicisation. In the 19th century, around three quarters of attorneys general served first as solicitor general (in effect the deputy), but since Sir Nicholas Lyell’s appointment 30 years ago, only one out of ten of his successors has done so. 

Victoria Prentis’s appointment continues that modern trend - as it does with regard to her becoming one of His Majesty’s Counsel Learned in the Law on appointment. On average throughout the 19th and the 20th/21st centuries, Attorneys General became QC or KC (took silk) over a decade before being appointed and while there is some variance, almost none had fewer than 5 years until the most recent appointments. Of the last six people to be Attorney General, two took silk only two years before (in Michael Ellis’s case on being appointed Solicitor General), one (Geoffrey Cox) took silk 15 years before but Victoria Prentis joins Jeremy Wright and Suella Braverman on the small and recent list as only becoming QC/KC on or after appointment as Attorney General. However, in a number of other ways Victoria Prentis appointment can be seen as a more conventional appointment. 


Time at the Bar

On appointment as Attorney General, Victoria Prentis was just over a month older than the average 20th/21st century attorney general and having been an MP for around 7.5 years, she had only 2.5 years less than average parliamentary experience. At 27 years post call to the Bar, she was just above the 20th/21st century average. This stands in contrast to Jeremy Wright and Suella Braverman who were around a decade younger than average and had amongst the least time since being called to the Bar (some 30 to 40 per cent below average). 

Furthermore, her prior governmental experience is more in line with her, generally less political, more distant predecessors (serving in the Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs and briefly at the Department of Work and Pensions) rather than the more highly politicised Brexit department (in the case of Suella Braverman) or as government whips (in the case of Michael Ellis and Jeremy Wright). While she hasn’t previously served as solicitor general, her 17 years working in the Treasury Solicitor's Department and acting as Geoffrey Cox’s Parliamentary Private Secretary when he was Attorney-General, provides a strong foundation for the role.