Brand new job, 6 hours in ... and knives are out for Elish

Key quote "Traditionally the Lord Advocate has always come from the Bar. I'm not arguing the Bar has exclusive rights but it does possess a culture of independence. I think there is a weakness in appointing someone who does not have that background." - former judge Lord McCluskey

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ELISH Angiolini has been selected as Scotland's first woman Lord Advocate - but her appointment immediately ran into trouble as senior legal figures and opposition MSPs questioned whether she was the right person for the job.

The former Solicitor-General was unveiled as First Minister Jack McConnell's choice to replace Colin Boyd, QC, as Scotland's top prosecutor at a press conference at 10am yesterday.

But within six hours, opposition MSPs and legal figures were openly doubting her credentials.

One former judge said she was a "career civil-servant" who lacked the independence of predecessors, while others questioned her experience and attacked the Lord Advocate's continuing position as a member of the cabinet, claiming it compromised the independence of the legal establishment.

Criticism was also levelled at Mr McConnell for choosing advocate John Beckett, a Labour Party member for 20 years, to replace Ms Angiolini as Solicitor-General.

Speaking at a debate on the appointment yesterday afternoon, Mr McConnell insisted he wanted a modernising Lord Advocate who was prepared to give ministers independent legal advice, even if they did not like it.

He said: "I want to have a moderniser, someone who will support and understand implementation of this government's policy; but also someone who will be honest and consistent in the legal advice they give to the cabinet and to ministers - even if we don't like it or don't want to hear it.

"I want someone who will make independent decisions on prosecution with the integrity that the holder of this office has always had to have."

Mr McConnell paid tribute to Lord Boyd, who resigned on Wednesday after six years as Lord Advocate.

He went on to tell MSPs that his appointment of Ms Angiolini as Solicitor- General had been "one of the best decisions I have made as First Minister".

Under her charge, Scotland's prosecution services were now admired, not "ridiculed", and witnesses now saw justice instead of "delays or chaos".

"Public confidence is returning, with the majority of cases now heard on time and with more police back out in the community doing their jobs rather than wasting time sitting in court waiting for cases to happen or not."

Ms Angiolini had been "an able and effective legal adviser" to the First Minister and cabinet whenever Lord Boyd was absent, he said.

Both her and Mr Beckett's appointments were later backed by an overwhelming majority at Holyrood, but the Tory leader Annabel Goldie said her party's support for Ms Angiolini's nomination was "heavily qualified". She said: "The job of Lord Advocate is essentially that of chief legal adviser to the Scottish Executive.

"The question is being asked: does Ms Angiolini possess the breadth of legal experience to provide that advice?"

And Ms Goldie said there had to be "real concerns" about the chief legal adviser to the Executive also being chief prosecutor for Scotland.

On the appointment of Mr Beckett, she said: "I think the role of Solicitor- General should be independent and I am not alone."

The SNP Holyrood leader, Nicola Sturgeon, welcomed Ms Angiolini's appointment as "another significant crack in the glass ceiling", but also argued the Lord Advocate should be independent of government.

Ms Goldie's concerns were echoed by former judge Lord McCluskey, who questioned whether Ms Angiolini, who was the first non-advocate to become Solicitor-General in 2001, had the right background to lead the prosecution service.

He said: "Traditionally the Lord Advocate has always come from the Bar. I'm not arguing the Bar has exclusive rights but it does possess a culture of independence. I think there is a weakness in appointing someone who does not have that background."

He said he would be looking for Ms Angiolini to "strike a new settlement" so the Lord Advocate is no longer a member of the cabinet.

A senior advocate, who did not wish to be named, added: "I think there are slight concerns about the independence of the prosecution system and appointing someone who was from a career path basically entirely within the civil service.

"Most of her career was based in the Crown Office policy department, which is closely aligned with the Executive."

The Lord Advocate, who commands a 104,000 salary, has overall responsibility for prosecutions in Scotland. The post-holder is specifically in charge of managing the Crown Office, while the Solicitor-General, who earns 88,000, acts as deputy to the Lord Advocate.

Under Lord Boyd, the Lord Advocate was in charge of policy issues affecting the Crown Office, while Ms Angiolini took the lead in the prosecution of sexual and sectarian offences.

Senior Crown Office personnel angrily rejected claims that Ms Angiolini lacked experience. One said: "She has been completely independent as Solicitor-General so there's no reason to think why she should be anything other than completely independent as Lord Advocate. Why should the Lord Advocate be someone from the old boys' club?"

Justice shake-up will be the first priority

THE single biggest challenge facing Elish Angiolini in her new role as Lord Advocate will be to ensure that sweeping reforms of the prosecution system deliver justice for more victims and offenders.

She will be instrumental in changing the way sheriff courts, which struggle to handle about 130,000 cases every year, are run.

In February, ministers unveiled a raft of measures aimed at speeding up the notoriously slow summary justice system, which deals with 95 per cent of prosecuted crime.

They include a series of new powers for prosecutors to be introduced on Ms Angiolini's watch. Fiscals will be able to impose fines of up to 500 on offenders who admit an offence, without the case going to court. And there will be a new system of compensation orders, under which fiscals can require offenders in minor cases to pay compensation of up to 5,000 to their victim, for example in cases where property has been damaged.

Ms Angiolini will also have to respond to public concern by prioritising the prosecution of serious crime, including drug-trafficking, and persistent offenders, and ensuring fiscals take a tougher stance on bail for people charged with violent or sexual crimes.

She has already pledged to make the prosecution system more "victim-friendly" and will be determined to ensure the recommendations of a major review into the prosecution of rape cases, which she oversaw, are implemented.

Only about 4 per cent of reported rapes are successfully prosecuted, and Ms Angiolini has admitted a "profoundly new approach" is needed.

One of her main aims will be to ensure police and prosecutors work more closely in dealing with so-called "low-level" crime, such as vandalism and breach of the peace, which often either clogs up the courts or fails to be punished at all.

In August, The Scotsman revealed that 50 offences a day reported by police to prosecutors were going unpunished because they were judged to be "too trivial". That is one of many flaws in the system that the new Lord Advocate will be expected to address.

Replacement is Labour loyalist

JOHN Beckett, the new Solicitor-General, has been a Labour Party member for 20 years.

He could be not described as a particularly active Labourite, though, having attended a party conference only in his first year of membership.

Mr Beckett, 43, was born in Crawley, West Sussex, and moved at a young age to Edinburgh, where he was educated at the Edinburgh Academy and Broughton High School, before studying law at Edinburgh University.

He later trained as an advocate and was called to the bar in 1993.

He has been involved in several high-profile cases, including acting as junior counsel for Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi in the Lockerbie trial and the subsequent appeal.

Mr Beckett moved to the "other side" and, as an advocate-depute for the Crown, was involved in the trial of Alexander Ness for the killing of his baby, Caleb, and William Ferris, who was found guilty of the murder of Jason Hutchison.

In January he was appointed to the position of Principal Advocate-Depute, leading the country's most senior prosecutors on a day-to-day basis.

Colleagues say Mr Beckett, who is married with three young children, is dedicated to the independence of prosecutors and the need to serve the public interest.