Attorney General for England and Wales

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Attorney General
for England and Wales
Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom (HM Government).svg
Official portrait of Suella Braverman MP.jpg
Suella Braverman

since 13 February 2020 (2020-02-13)
Attorney General's Office
StyleThe Right Honourable
Reports toPrime Minister of the United Kingdom
Secretary of State for Justice
AppointerThe Monarch
on advice of the Prime Minister
First holderWilliam de Boneville
DeputySolicitor General for England and Wales

Her Majesty's Attorney General for England and Wales is one of the law officers of the Crown. The attorney general serves as the principal legal adviser to the Crown and the Government in England and Wales.[citation needed] The attorney general maintains the Attorney General's Office and currently attends (but is not a member of) Cabinet. Unlike in other countries utilizing the common law legal system, the attorney general does not administer the judicial system; that function is carried out by the Secretary of State for Justice. The office is also concurrently held with that of Advocate General for Northern Ireland.[1]

The position of attorney general has existed since at least 1243, when records show a professional attorney was hired to represent the King's interests in court. The position first took on a political role in 1461 when the holder of the office was summoned to the House of Lords to advise the government there on legal matters. In 1673, the attorney general officially became the Crown's adviser and representative in legal matters, although still specialising in litigation rather than advice. The beginning of the twentieth century saw a shift away from litigation and more towards legal advice. Today, prosecutions are carried out by the Crown Prosecution Service and most legal advice to government departments is provided by the Government Legal Service, both under the supervision of the attorney general.

The job of the attorney general is highly demanding, and Sir Patrick Hastings wrote while serving that "to be a law officer is to be in hell".[2] Duties include superintending the Crown Prosecution Service, the Serious Fraud Office, and other government lawyers with the authority to prosecute cases. Additionally, the attorney general superintends the Government Legal Department (formerly the Treasury Solicitor's Department), HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate and the Service Prosecuting Authority. The attorney general advises the government, individual government departments and individual government ministers on legal matters, answering questions in Parliament and bringing "unduly lenient" sentences and points of law to the Court of Appeal of England and Wales. As per the passing of the Law Officers Act 1997, duties can be delegated to the Solicitor General, and any actions are treated as if they came from the attorney general.

The corresponding shadow minister is the Shadow Attorney General for England and Wales, and the work of the attorney general is also scrutinised by the Justice Select Committee.[3]


The origins of the office are unknown, but the earliest record of an "attorney of the crown" is from 1243, when a professional attorney named Laurence Del Brok was paid to prosecute cases for the king, who could not appear in courts where he had an interest.[2] During the early days of the office the holder was largely concerned with representing the Crown in litigation, and held no political role or duties.[4] Although a valuable position, the attorney general was expected to work incredibly hard; although Francis North (1637–1685) was earning £7,000 a year as attorney general he was pleased to give up the office and become Chief Justice of the Common Pleas because of the smaller workload, despite the heavily reduced pay.[4] The office first took on a political element in 1461, when the holder was summoned by writ to the House of Lords to advise the government on legal matters. This was also the first time that the office was referred to as the office of the "Attorney General".[2] The custom of summoning the attorney general to the Lords by writ when appointed continues unbroken to this day, although until the appointment of Lord Williams of Mostyn in 1999, no attorney general had sat in the Lords since 1700, and no attorney general had obeyed the writ since 1742.[5]

During the sixteenth century, the attorney general was used to pass messages between the House of Lords and House of Commons, although he was viewed suspiciously by the Commons and seen as a tool of the Lords and the king.[5] In 1673 the attorney general began to take up a seat in the House of Commons, and since then it has been convention to ensure that all attorneys general are members of the House of Commons or House of Lords, although there is no requirement that they be so.[6] During the constitutional struggle centred on the Royal Declaration of Indulgence in 1672 and 1673 the attorney general officially became the Crown's representative in legal matters.

In 1890, the ability of an attorney general to continue practising privately was formally taken away, turning the office-holder into a dedicated representative of the government.[7] Since the beginning of the twentieth century the role of the attorney general has moved away from representing the Crown and government directly in court, and it has become more of a political and ministerial post, with the attorney general serving as a legal adviser to both the government as a whole and individual government departments.[8] Despite this change, until the passing of the Homicide Act 1957 the attorney general was bound to prosecute any and all poisoning cases.[9]

However, in recent times the attorney general has exceptionally conducted litigation in person before the courts, for instance before the House of Lords in A and Others v Secretary of State for the Home Department,[10] where the legality of the government's detention of terrorist suspects at Belmarsh was at issue.

Role and duties[edit]

The attorney general is currently not a Cabinet minister, but is designated as also attending Cabinet.[11] The rule that no attorney general may be a cabinet minister is a political convention rather than a law, and for a short time the attorney general did sit in cabinet,[12] starting with Sir Rufus Isaacs in 1912 and ending with Douglas Hogg in 1928.[13] There is nothing that prohibits attorneys general from attending meetings of the Cabinet, and on occasion they have been asked to attend meetings to advise the government on the best course of action legally.[12] Despite this it is considered preferable to exclude attorneys general from cabinet meetings so as to draw a distinct line between them and the political decisions on which they are giving legal advice.[12] As a government minister, the attorney general is directly answerable to Parliament.[14]

The attorney general is also the chief legal adviser of the Crown and its government, and has the primary role of advising the government on any legal repercussions of their actions, either orally at meetings or in writing. As well as the government as a whole, they also advise individual departments.[12][15] Although the primary role is no longer one of litigation, the attorney general still represents the Crown and government in court in some select, particularly important cases, and chooses the Treasury Counsel who handle most government legal cases.[9] By convention, they represent the government in every case in front of the International Court of Justice.[9] The attorney general also superintends the Crown Prosecution Service and appoints its head, the Director of Public Prosecutions. Decisions to prosecute are taken by the Crown Prosecution Service other than in exceptional cases i.e. where the attorney general's consent is required by statute or in cases relating to national security.[16] An example of a consent case is the Campbell Case, which led to the fall of the first Labour government in 1924.[17]

The attorney general also superintends the Government Legal Department and the Serious Fraud Office.[15][18] The attorney general also has powers to bring "unduly lenient" sentences and points of law to the Court of Appeal, issue writs of nolle prosequi to cancel criminal prosecutions, supervise other prosecuting bodies (such as DEFRA) and advise individual ministers facing legal action as a result of their official actions.[19] They are responsible for making applications to the court restraining vexatious litigants, and may intervene in litigation to represent the interests of charity, or the public interest in certain family law cases.[20] They are also officially the leader of the Bar of England and Wales, although this is merely custom and has no duties or rights attached to it.[19] The attorney general's duties have long been considered strenuous, with Sir Patrick Hastings saying that "to be a law officer is to be in hell".[2] Since the passing of the Law Officers Act 1997, any duties of the attorney general can be delegated to the Solicitor General for England and Wales, and their actions are treated as coming from the attorney general.[21]

List of attorneys general[edit]

13th century[edit]

14th century[edit]

  • John de Cestria (1300–1301)[22]
  • John de Mutford (1301–1308)[22]
  • Matthew de Scacarrio (1308–1312)[23]
  • John de Norton (1312–1315)[23]
  • William de Langley (1315–1318)[23]
  • Adam de Fyneham (1318–1320)[23]
  • Galfridus de Scrope (1320–1322)[23]
  • Galfridus de Fyngale (1322–1324)[23]
  • Adam de Fyneham (1324–1327)[23]
  • William of Merston (26 February 1327 – 1327)[23]
  • Alexander de Hadenham and Adam de Fyneham (1327–1328)
  • Richard of Aldeburgh (1329–1334)
  • Simon of Trewythosa (c. 1334)
  • William of Hepton (1334–1338)
  • John of Lincoln (28 May 1338 – 4 August 1338)
  • John of Clone (4 August 1338 – 1338)
  • William of Merington (1338–1339)
  • John of Clone (1339–1342)
  • William of Thorpe (1342–1343)
  • John of Lincoln (1343–1343)
  • John of Clone (1343–1349)
  • Simon of Kegworth (1349–1353)
  • Henry of Greystok (1353–1356)
  • John of Gaunt (1356 – 4 May 1360)
  • Richard of Fryseby (4 May 1360 – 1362)
  • William (or possibly Robert) of Pleste (1362–1363)
  • William of Nessefield (1363 – 9 November 1366)
  • Thomas of Shardelow (9 November 1366 – 20 May 1367)
  • John of Ashwell (20 May 1367 – 1367)
  • Michael Skilling (1367–1378)
  • Thomas of Shardelow (1378–1381)
  • William Ellis (1381–1381)
  • Laurence Dru (1381–1384)
  • William of Horneby (1384–1386)
  • Edmund Brudnell (1386–1398)
  • Thomas Coveley (1398 – 30 September 1399)
  • William of Lodington (30 September 1399 – 1401)

15th century[edit]

  • Thomas Coveley (1401 – 13 July 1407)
  • Thomas Dereham (13 July 1407 – 17 August 1407)
  • Roger Hunt (17 August 1407 – 1410)
  • Thomas Tickhill (1410 – 16 January 1414)
  • William Babington (16 January 1414 – 1420)
  • William Babthorpe (1420 – 28 October 1429)
  • John Vampage (28 October 1429 – 30 June 1452)
  • William of Nottingham (30 June 1452 – 12 August 1461)
  • John Herbert (12 August 1461 – 1461)
  • Henry Sothill (1461 – 16 June 1471)
  • William Hussey (16 June 1471 – 7 May 1481)
  • William Huddesfield (7 May 1481 – 28 May 1483)
  • Morgan Kidwelly (28 May 1483 – 20 September 1485)
  • William Hody (20 September 1485 – 3 November 1486)
  • James Hobart (3 November 1486 – April 1509)

16th century[edit]

17th century[edit]

18th century[edit]

19th century[edit]

Colour key (for political parties):

  Conservative  Liberal

Name Portrait Term of Office Political party Prime Minister
Sir William Atherton 4 July 1861 2 October 1863 Liberal Palmerston


Sir Roundell Palmer Lord Selborne LC LS&PC.jpg 2 October 1863 26 June 1866 Liberal


Sir Hugh Cairns Hugh Cairns, 1st Earl Cairns - 1860s.jpg 10 July 1866 29 October 1866 Conservative Derby-Disraeli


Sir John Rolt Sir John Rolt 1866.jpg 29 October 1866 18 July 1867 Conservative
Sir John Burgess Karslake John Burgess Karslake, Vanity Fair, 1873-02-22.jpg 18 July 1867 1 December 1868 Conservative
Sir Robert Collier Robert Porrett Collier2.jpg 12 December 1868 10 November 1871 Liberal Gladstone


Sir John Coleridge Lord Coleridge LCJ by EU Eddis.JPG 10 November 1871 20 November 1873
Sir Henry James BaronJames Bassano1882.jpg 20 November 1873 17 February 1874
Sir John Burgess Karslake John Burgess Karslake, Vanity Fair, 1873-02-22.jpg 27 February 1874 20 April 1874 Conservative Disraeli


Sir Richard Baggallay Sirrichardbaggally.png 20 April 1874 25 November 1875
Sir John Holker John Holker, Vanity Fair, 1878-02-09.jpg 25 November 1875 21 April 1880
Sir Henry James BaronJames Bassano1882.jpg 3 May 1880 9 June 1885 Liberal Gladstone


Sir Richard Webster Portrait of Richard Webster, 1st Viscount Alverstone.jpg 27 June 1885 28 January 1886 Conservative Marquess of Salisbury


Sir Charles Russell Charles Arthur Russell, Baron Russell of Killowen by John Singer Sargent.jpg 9 February 1886 20 July 1886 Liberal Gladstone


Sir Richard Webster Portrait of Richard Webster, 1st Viscount Alverstone.jpg 5 August 1886 11 August 1892 Conservative Marquess of Salisbury


Sir Charles Russell Charles Arthur Russell, Baron Russell of Killowen by John Singer Sargent.jpg 20 August 1892 3 May 1894 Liberal Gladstone


Sir John Rigby Lord Justice Rigby.jpg 3 May 1894 24 October 1894
5th Earl of Rosebery
Sir Robert Reid Lord Loreburn GGBain.jpg 24 October 1894 21 June 1895
Sir Richard Webster Portrait of Richard Webster, 1st Viscount Alverstone.jpg 8 July 1895 7 May 1900 Conservative Marquess of Salisbury
(Unionist Coalition)

20th century[edit]

Colour key (for political parties):
  Conservative   Labour   Liberal   Liberal Unionist   National Labour   Irish Unionist

Name Portrait Term of office Political party Prime Minister
Sir Robert Finlay 1stViscountFinlay.jpg 7 May 1900 4 December 1905 Liberal Unionist Marquess of Salisbury
(Unionist Coalition)
(Unionist Coalition)
Sir John Lawson Walton John Lawson Walton.jpg 12 December 1905 28 January 1908 Liberal Campbell-Bannerman
Sir William Robson William Robson.jpg 28 January 1908 7 October 1910
Sir Rufus Isaacs Rufus Isaacs, 1st Marquess of Reading in 1917.jpg 7 October 1910 19 October 1913
Sir John Simon Viscount Simon.jpg 19 October 1913 25 May 1915
Sir Edward Carson Portrait of Edward Carson, Baron Carson.jpg 25 May 1915 19 October 1915 Irish Unionist Asquith
Sir F. E. Smith 1stEarlOfBirkenhead.jpg 3 November 1915 10 January 1919 Conservative
Lloyd George
Sir Gordon Hewart Gordon Hewart, 1st Viscount Hewart.jpg 10 January 1919 6 March 1922 Liberal
Sir Ernest Pollock 1stViscountHanworth - cropped.jpg 6 March 1922 19 October 1922 Conservative
Sir Douglas Hogg Hailsham1.JPG 24 October 1922 22 January 1924 Law
Sir Patrick Hastings Patrick Hastings QC.jpg 23 January 1924 3 November 1924 Labour MacDonald
Sir Douglas Hogg Hailsham1.JPG 6 November 1924 28 March 1928 Conservative Baldwin
Sir Thomas Inskip Thomas Inskip.jpg 28 March 1928 4 June 1929
Sir William Jowitt William Allen Jowitt c1945.jpg 7 June 1929 26 January 1932 Labour MacDonald
(First National ministry)
(Second National ministry)
Sir Thomas Inskip Thomas Inskip.jpg 26 January 1932 18 March 1936 Conservative
(Third National ministry)
Sir Donald Somervell 18 March 1936 25 May 1945
(Fourth National ministry)
Sir David Maxwell Fyfe

MP for Liverpool West Derby

David Maxwell Fyfe, Nuremberg, 1946 (Art. IWM ART LD 5863).jpg 25 May 1945 26 July 1945 Churchill
Sir Hartley Shawcross

MP for St Helens

Hartley William Shawcross, Baron Shawcross (cropped).png 4 August 1945 24 April 1951 Labour Attlee
Sir Frank Soskice

MP for Sheffield Neepsend

24 April 1951 26 October 1951
Sir Lionel Heald

MP for Chertsey

LIONEL HEALD.jpg 3 November 1951 18 October 1954 Conservative Churchill
Sir Reginald

MP for Northamptonshire South

18 October 1954 16 July 1962
Sir John Hobson

MP for Warwick and Leamington

16 July 1962 16 October 1964
Sir Elwyn Jones

MP for West Ham South

Elwyn Jones in Romania (cropped).jpg 18 October 1964 19 June 1970 Labour Wilson
Sir Peter Rawlinson

MP for Epsom

23 June 1970 4 March 1974 Conservative Heath
Samuel Silkin

MP for Dulwich

7 March 1974 4 May 1979 Labour Wilson
Sir Michael Havers

MP for Wimbledon

6 May 1979 13 June 1987 Conservative Thatcher
Sir Patrick Mayhew

MP for Tunbridge Wells

13 June 1987 10 April 1992
Sir Nicholas Lyell

MP for Mid Bedfordshire

10 April 1992 2 May 1997
Sir John Morris

MP for Aberavon

Official portrait of Lord Morris of Aberavon crop 2.jpg 6 May 1997 29 July 1999 Labour Blair
Gareth Williams
Baron Williams of Mostyn
29 July 1999 11 June 2001

21st century[edit]

Colour key (for political parties):
  Conservative   Labour

Name Portrait Term of office Political party Prime Minister
Peter Goldsmith
Baron Goldsmith
Peter Goldsmith Crop.jpg 11 June 2001 27 June 2007 Labour Blair
Patricia Scotland
Baroness Scotland of Asthal
PatriciaScotland2a.jpg 27 June 2007 11 May 2010 Brown
Dominic Grieve

MP for Beaconsfield

Official portrait of Mr Dominic Grieve crop 2.jpg 12 May 2010 15 July 2014 Conservative Cameron
Jeremy Wright

MP for Kenilworth and Southam

Jeremy Wright MP.jpg 15 July 2014 9 July 2018
Geoffrey Cox

MP for Torridge and West Devon

Official portrait of Rt Hon Geoffrey Cox QC MP crop 2.jpg 9 July 2018 13 February 2020
Suella Braverman

MP for Fareham

Official portrait of Suella Braverman MP crop 2.jpg 13 February 2020 Incumbent
(on leave 2021)
Michael Ellis

MP for Northampton North


Official portrait of Rt Hon Michael Ellis MP crop 2.jpg 2 March 2021 10 September 2021

See also[edit]


  1. ^ McCormick, Conor; Cowie, Graeme (28 May 2020). "The Law Officers: a Constitutional and Functional Overview". House of Commons Library. p. 3. Archived from the original on 17 June 2020. Retrieved 10 March 2021.
  2. ^ a b c d Jones (1969) p. 43
  3. ^ "Work of the Attorney General evidence session". 8 September 2015. Retrieved 10 September 2021. The Justice Select Committee holds a one-off session on the work of the Attorney General on Tuesday 15 September.
  4. ^ a b Jones (1969) p. 45
  5. ^ a b Jones (1969) p. 44
  6. ^ Cooley (1958) p. 307
  7. ^ Attorney General's Office (2007) p. 4
  8. ^ Jones (1969) p. 46
  9. ^ a b c Jones (1969) p. 48
  10. ^ [2004] UKHL 56
  11. ^ "Ministers". Archived from the original on 5 April 2012. Retrieved 10 March 2021.
  12. ^ a b c d Jones (1969), p. 47
  13. ^ Ramsden, John (2004). "Oxford DNB article: Hogg, Douglas McGarel (subscription needed)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/33925. Retrieved 29 August 2009. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  14. ^ Jones (1969) p. 49
  15. ^ a b "What does the Attorney General Do?". Archived from the original on 8 December 2015. Retrieved 10 March 2014.
  16. ^ "The Protocol between the Attorney General and the Prosecuting Departments" (PDF). July 2009. Archived from the original (PDF) on 25 July 2011.
  17. ^ Jones (1969) p. 50
  18. ^ "Attorney General's Office for England and Wales". Attorney General's Office for England and Wales. Retrieved 29 August 2009.
  19. ^ a b Constitutional Affairs Committee. "The Constitutional Role of the Attorney General" (PDF). Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 29 July 2014.
  20. ^ {{cite web}}: Missing or empty |title= (help)
  21. ^ Elliott (2008) p. 249
  22. ^ a b c d e The Chronological Historian:Volume 2. p. 55.
  23. ^ a b c d e f g h The Chronological Historian:Volume 1. p. 59.

Works cited[edit]

External links[edit]