James Wolffe QC on his new post as vice-dean of the Faculty of Advocates

James Wolffe QC at Parliament House. Picture: Jane Barlow
James Wolffe QC at Parliament House. Picture: Jane Barlow
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IT’S an interesting kind of election that leads to the office of vice-dean of the Faculty of Advocates.

That’s “office” both in the sense of standing – as a respected figure within the faculty, but also in the sense of location – behind an impressive desk of his own in a room of his own, off the advocates library in Edinburgh’s Parliament House.

Several weeks into his tenure as vice-dean, James Wolffe QC was clearly still coming to terms with his exclusive domain after years of hot desking next door. There was a secret ballot last month to choose a successor to Iain Armstrong QC upon his appointment to the bench.

Wolffe came top of the four candidates, ahead of Simon di Rollo, Ian Duguid and Peter Gray, QCs all. How, does such a sophisticated electorate of determined individualists make its choice of office bearer you might wonder? Mysterious ways, apparently.

“It’s a slightly curious process,” says Mr Wolffe. “We don’t have a hustings or anything like that, and we don’t set out a platform of any kind.”

That makes some sense. The vice-dean and other office bearers are there to support the dean, who is the undisputed leader. “Having the confidence of your colleagues is the important thing, that they know the office bearers are working conscientiously on behalf of the independent bar but also making a considered contribution to the public interest in the many forums where law and practice are discussed and developed within Scotland and also in the wider world.”

The Chambers Bar Directory describes “James Wolffe QC as ‘an exceptionally able and hard-working advocate, possessed of acute insight and very sound judgment’ ”.

A ringing endorsement but his CV is even broader. He trained as a solicitor with Maclay Murray and Spens and spent a year as legal assistant to the Lord President in 1990-91, during Lord Hope’s tenure, before applying to the bar. He gained insight into the world of government as First Standing Junior Counsel to the Scottish ministers between 2002-7 and then spent three years prosecuting as advocate depute and senior advocate depute in the Crown Office from 2007-10.

He represented the Crown in the long-running fatal accident inquiry into the death of 14 elderly residents following the fire at the Rosepark care home in Uddingston, Lanarkshire, in January 2004. He is a member of JUSTICE Scotland and is convenor of the faculty’s law reform committee.

“James is a very clever, efficient and thoroughly decent type,” says one of his admirers within the faculty. “He is good company, with an old-fashioned, dependable courtesy.”

Wolffe was brought up in Galloway and went to his local comprehensive school before taking a first law degree at the University of Edinburgh and a postgraduate degree at Oxford.

“I am a Gallovidian but my father came to Scotland in the 1930s from Germany. His father was a lawyer but suffered because my grandmother was Jewish. There were lawyers on her side of the family including, I’m told, the first Jew to be allowed to practise in Berlin in the mid-19th century.”

He is clearly assiduous in terms of detail but understands if you are not at the table you are unlikely to have your voice heard.

“I’m very interested in making sure that as Scots lawyers we play our part and make ourselves visible outside Scotland. As a member of the Council of European Bars and Law Societies I’ve been very pleased we have secured representation for senior members of the faculty on five of its committees. That’s parity with the Bar Council of England and Wales. It is important the faculty is engaged with what’s going on and that we are flying the flag for Scots law in the wider world.”

Paradoxically, there appears to be less automatic admiration for the fluttering flag at home. In so many areas of law and its administration there are changes in the pipeline that will transform the legal landscape for a generation. The faculty’s views are expected but not always heeded.

Wolffe is pleased to recount the long history of access to justice in Scotland and the part the independent bar has played in the past and, he feels, must play in the future.

“There was publicly funded litigation in Scotland from the 15th century and the right of the poor to be represented in criminal cases in the 16th century – 150 years ahead of England. Access to justice has been embedded as one of the fundamental features of Scottish culture. I understand that we are in a different world now and that there are pressures on the public purse. But it is part of our duty to the public to continue to argue the case for access to justice.”

The harsh reality, in recent years, is that the faculty has not had the ear of power in the way it used to.

In the Scotland of the Holyrood parliament and its stream of consultations the law reform committee has found itself reacting to proposals and initiatives that will affect its members and the tasks before them in court.

The criminal bar has spoken out bluntly about the “politicisation” of the Crown Office in pursuit of campaigning by prosecution; the faculty has criticised the Carloway proposals for the abolition of the requirement for “corroboration” of every item of evidence; the dean has criticised that part of the current Scottish Government proposals for overhaul of civil courts that may lead to “inequality of arms” in the sheriff courts.

What can a vice-dean do? The opposition among criminal defence solicitors to the government’s changes to legal aid led to sporadic and unprecedented industrial action across Scotland, and demonstrations organised by Protest For Justice outside the Scottish Parliament. Some of the protestors argue that they won because the original scheme was substantially changed. Others say they lost because the government did not withdraw the principle and the new regime comes into force in August.

It may be some time before we see a silken picket line of QCs outside the Court of Session and High Courts but Wolffe sees a need to keep the general public informed about issues that will effect the Scottish justice culture the history of which he is so proud.

“Within the faculty there is a wealth of experience and insight that we must make available in the development of ideas and practices. It is a real public concern that the system retains its integrity and we have to make our insight available to those who need to hear, not only by writing responses but through wider media.”