Interview: Elish Angiolini, Lord Advocate

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As Scotland's first woman Lord Advocate prepares to step down in May, she tells our reporter why she is glad to be escaping the 'sinister flashing red light' of her BlackBerry

IF THERE WAS a moment which set Elish Angiolini on the path to becoming Scotland's most powerful lawyer and first woman Lord Advocate, it was when she was a teenager and saw two boys leave a neighbour's home with a rolled up carpet under their arms.

The only unusual thing about the theft was their choice of loot – crime had become very much the norm in 1970s Govan, following the closure of shipyards, with mass unemployment and a growing sense of gloom and rebellion. People react differently to such a tough environment and upbringing. Some target neighbours, others set about protecting them.

In her expansive office in Chambers Street, in Edinburgh's Old Town, Ms Angiolini, now 50, talks passionately and articulately about the things that still get her up at 6am each morning, which force her to keep working in the evening, and renders her a slave or her BlackBerry, which is never off or more than a yard away – even on holidays, even when she sleeps.

"I'm constantly on call," she said. "That's 24/7 – something can happen day or night."

She picks up her BlackBerry and gives it a small, but determined shake. "This will be the first thing I ditch. The BlackBerry that flashes through the night, the sinister red light."

The red light is an e-mail, which can usually be left until morning. A phone call would have to be answered straight away, the Lord Advocate would be one of the first people called if Scotland suffered a terrorist attack or a natural disaster, for example.

Her wide-ranging responsibilities make her the person in charge of tackling drug traffickers as well internet paedophile rings, while at the same time holding the Scottish Government to account, making sure its legislation is actually legal.

She is also a Keeper of the Regalia of Scotland, at Edinburgh Castle – an honour she shares with the First Minister – and a member of the Scottish Bible Board and the Lighthouse Board, whose membership over the years can be traced back to Sir Walter Scott, among others.

Asked if that Govan teenager had always harboured dreams of holding such a prestigious position, she laughed. "I wouldn't want to insult others, but you would need to have had a full frontal lobotomy to ever want this job as a child.

"As a child and in my early teens I wanted to be a ballet dancer. But I was told summarily that, despite lots of enthusiasm, that wasn't going to happen."

Still, it wasn't until her late teens that she started seriously considering a career in law.

She said: "It wasn't a burning ambition. What influenced me was the environment and the time I was brought up in.

"In Govan, with the shipyards closing, crime rates mushroomed. There was lots of housebreaking, including my mothers' and fathers' house, and neighbours.

"I was about 15 when I became really conscious of the insecurity of the house. My mother – who died last year, aged 94 – was reluctant to leave it in case someone broke in. Our commuWnity would have several break-ins in the space of a few days. We had glass-fronted doors and I remember my father covering them up with wrought-iron cell bars. It seemed disproportionate – what had been a nice quiet street became like Fort Knox."

A year or two later, she went to court for the first time, as a witness. "I had to give evidence," she said. "I spotted these two boys walking out of a house with a carpet.

"I was 16 or 17 and it was my first encounter with the courts. I was not terribly impressed.There were a lot of important people in gowns and witnesses were left a very long time in the witness room and not given any information. Everyone was smoking, it was not a nice environment.

"I was asked to take the oath, which seemed ludicrous at that time. I gave evidence in chief – but no-one had even introduced themselves, which I thoughwt was incredibly rude.

"All the attention was focused on the permanent figures of the court, while us witnesses, and those in the dock, seemed irrelevant. I contrasted that with working in the food sales department of Marks and Spencers, where the customer was everything."

So the M&S check-out girl left Notre Dame High School, in Glasgow, and entered Strathclyde University, where she studied for a Bachelor of Law degree before a Diploma in Legal Practice.

In 1983, she started a career traineeship in the Crown Office. Much was made of the fact that Ms Angiolini was a career prosecutor when she became Lord Advocate – she had never been an actual advocate. However, it is clearly not seen as a problem with the benefit of hindsight. Her deputy, the Solicitor General Frank Mulholland, is favourite to succeed her, and he hasn't been an advocate either.

She could not have been more distinctive, as if being the first female Lord Advocate was not enough, she came from a less privileged background than many of her predecessors, and is also a practising Roman Catholic. "Yes," she smiled, "the name makes it pretty obvious – Elish Frances McPhilomy."

Has religion influenced the way she has gone about her job? "I can't compare and contrast how my Buddhist friend goes about his job – you are a product of your environment.

"But I think you should be judged on your actions, rather than what you say.

"I wouldn't put myself out there as a perfect Christian – I've not even managed to stay off chocolate for Lent, which I solemnly promised to do a few weeks ago." What broke the Lord Advocate's resolve? "Some Cadbury's thing."

She is also Lord Advocate at a time when the role is scrutinised like never before. Prior to devolution, her predecessors would spend three days a week in London. Her communications office has mushroomed in size from one person and a fax machine to six members of staff. High-profile cases include the landmark Peter Cadder ruling, which she lost in the Supreme Court and the Shirley McKie fingerprints saga, which many believed led to the downfall of her predecessor Colin Boyd.

She says: "The position is now more visible," she said. "People question what is the Lord Advocate doing on this or that. These are all questions that would not have been asked in the past.

"But of my 25 predecessors, one had to go into battlefield and fight, I've not had to do that. And in recent history each one has had a major challenge to deal with. That's what you're paid the money for."

Ms Angiolini has had to balance the demands of her job with those of being a wife and mother. and even though her husband, Domenico, left his job as a hairdresser to raise their two sons, Domenico and David, she is keen to spend as much time with her children as possible.

She gets up at 6am each morning – except on weekends, when she has a "long lie in" – and, with the Scottish Government's legal problems all waiting in her in tray, sets about making the children's breakfast.

"We don't watch the news or listen to the radio, usually I'm assisting my husband in trying to find a trainer or a school jumper which has somehow worked its way into the porch," she said. "I then get picked up and I work in the back of the car. Some people can't do that, but I find it's mind over matter, and it's invaluable. I have to read a great deal."

When asked how much, she points to a number of thick manila folders on her desk. If an advocate is prosecuting in court and an issue over the interpretation of law comes up, or if a witness does not say in court what they had previously said in interview, the issue comes to her. If the Crown is considering accepting a lesser plea in a murder or rape case, it comes to her. That is in addition to the mountings of Scottish Government laws, legislation, guidelines and regulations that she has to read through to make sure it is all legally sound.

She is never completely free of her responsibilities, even on holiday. She says: "If there's a terrorist incident or a natural disaster I have to be on the case straight away. Even when I am on holiday I take calls, and if it was something major I would return right away." She recently went on holiday to Petra, in Jordan, and Egypt. "They're just bucket and spade holidays with the kids, but they have been great.

"You have to be able to switch off if you do a job like this or you would suffer a cardiac infarction."

That's not to say she does not love her job. "It's an entirely fascinating, huge role to carry out. But you have got to be balanced or you would not do your job properly. Unless you take time for yourself and your family you can't function in your role.

"You've got to find space to be human. I'm very much grounded by being a wife and mother, that way you have to get on with the things that life forces you to."

She added: "No-one ever said on their death bed that they wished they'd spent more time in the office."

So what will she do when there is no office. She has already been unveiled as the first patron of the charity, LawWorks Scotland, which was set up by solicitors and representatives from the charity sector to help people who cannot afford to pay for legal advice.

The role further defines her as a champion of the people, but is unlikely in itself to satisfy someone with such a huge appetite for work.

Some expect her to work towards becoming a judge. "I'm just looking forward to a long rest. I've not applied to be a judge at the moment, who knows in the future."

BACKGROUND

ELISH Angiolini has enjoyed an eventful six years as Scotland's top lawyer.

Having also serving as Solicitor General under predecessor Peter Boyd she has been an almost permanent figure at the forefront of Scots law since devolution. She is well-known for being the first woman, the first procurator fiscal, and the first solicitor – rather than advocate – to hold the post.

However, she was also unusual in serving under two different administrations – the Labour/LibDem coalition, and the SNP minority government – making the role less party political.

When lawyers representing Peter Cadder, who had been convicted of two assaults and a breach of the peace in Glasgow, argued Scots law was not compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights, it was her job to defend it. However, she lost that case in the Supreme Court, and as a result the cases against almost 900 suspected criminals, including alleged rapists, collapsed.

The interim guidelines she introduced stopped even more cases being affected, but she was criticised by peers for not consulting them.

She was involved in a row with senior judge, Lord Hamilton, over the collapsed World's End murder trial, when her defence of the Crown case to parliament was seen as an attack on the trial judge.

However, she will hope that she will be remembered as the defender of victims, particular those who have been raped.

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