FOR one of the most high profile and influential figures in the UK legal world, having overseen some of the most significant changes made to the Scottish criminal justice system, Dame Elish Angiolini QC is remarkably self-effacing.
She was the first woman, the first Procurator Fiscal and the first solicitor to hold either of the posts of Lord Advocate and Solicitor General for Scotland. During her 30-year career she has held senior jobs at the Crown Office, which oversees Scotland’s prosecution service, and has advised the Westminster government on a raft of major policies and legislation.
But despite her considerable achievements, the 52-year-old does not regard herself as a pioneer. “I think some people would classify me more accurately as an irritant,” she says. In the classic tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes, Dame Elish likens herself to the character who points out the glaring problem when others do not. It is a trait that stems, she says, from “a Glasgow earthiness of just saying it like it is” and from a desire to “make our prosecution system the very best”.
Much has been made of the impressive career trajectory of this “girl from Govan” whose interest in the law began as a teenager handing out information leaflets and trying to find solutions for poverty-hit families living in sub-standard housing. The daughter of a coal merchant from a working class shipbuilding community, she had no connections to the legal profession but became the first in her family to go to university. The youngest of four children, she received a full education grant to study law at Strathclyde University and met living costs by working part-time as a check-out girl and barmaid.
An unswerving drive and determination helped her succeed where many young people from similarly modest backgrounds could not. “I was very fortunate to have parents who were passionate about learning and they made sure my siblings and I had all the opportunities they could make available to us,” she says. “They gave us tremendous support and affection and all four of us have done well in our careers.”
She fears opportunities for young people from poorer backgrounds to enter professions such as law and medicine nowadays may be under threat. “In my generation, lots of people came into university from poorer backgrounds because of full funding and my concern now is that might slow down. Although Scotland is different from England in terms of university fees and funding, there’s no doubt the prospect of getting into debt is more daunting for those from less well-off backgrounds.
“I’m not sure that I would have gone to university now, I might have just gone out and got a job instead.”
Married with two teenage sons, Dame Elish remains grounded and has a down-to-earth manner that belies her accomplished position. The sense of social justice that first sparked her legal career has never left her. She believes passionately in a fair judicial system that has the confidence of the public and responds to their needs. She has worked continuously to improve the support offered to vulnerable victims and witnesses, and many of the changes she oversaw in the Scottish judicial system aimed to improve the service it provided, particularly to women, victims of sexual crimes and minority communities. She is also patron of the charity Law Works Scotland which sources legal advice for people from poorer backgrounds.
She says: “When I was making changes to the way the prosecution system operated, some critics thought it was all about sentiment, about being nice to people, but while compassion has an important part to play in the criminal justice system, treating people decently is also a vital part of encouraging confidence in the system. We were in a situation where rape and child abuse victims were not coming forward because you don’t come to an organisation that looks remote and hard from the outside. The view that an independent organisation cannot be willing to communicate or listen is both shortsighted and shallow.”
Dame Elish’s main role these days is as Principal of St Hugh’s College, University of Oxford, which is determined to widen access to education to those from less privileged backgrounds. As part of this role she will be speaking at a number of secondary schools in Glasgow’s poorer east end areas. She explains: “I want to encourage them to raise their expectations, and to say Oxford is a tremendous place to be and it’s for you, not for someone else. A significant new range of bursaries and scholarships should mean no brilliant student is deprived of an undergraduate place.”
It is the benefit of her considerable professional experience that Dame Elish will bring to her role as non-executive director at MDDUS, where she will play an important role in strategic development. She first came into direct professional contact with the Union about two years ago when she represented several members in the public inquiry into the C. difficile deaths at Vale of Leven Hospital during which, she says: “I was very impressed with the MDDUS personnel and the way in which the organisation responded”.
Ever since her first role as a junior procurator fiscal in 1983, Dame Elish has been involved in the investigation of sudden deaths and has been “surrounded by medicine” in both a forensic context and also in relation to standards. She has always had a “genuine interest in medical cases and medical matters”, admitting in typically modest style: “Part of me was a frustrated doctor but I wasn’t clever enough so I became a lawyer”. And while her role at MDDUS will not involve providing legal advice, this long-standing interest in the medico-legal field will clearly be of benefit.
She says: “I will be coming to MDDUS having been the leader of a large organisation for 10 years, one which has a significant public profile.
“I will also be looking to the future development of MDDUS, hoping I can assist in ensuring its sound stewardship and best practice in terms of representation and dissemination of information. I hope to help ensure members continue to be as well represented and advised as they can be in an area which is very dynamic.
“The most successful boards tend to have a diverse range of skills and I hope to further enhance the board’s effectiveness.”
Dame Elish is also a visiting Professor of Law at Strathclyde University and hopes to produce courses for prospective medical witnesses about appearing in court or tribunals.
“A lot of people are very anxious about the prospect of going to court but if you strip away some of the mystery then it becomes easier to deal with,” she says.
Pioneer or “irritant”, Dame Elish looks set to continue blazing a trail in pursuit of a system that is the best it can be.
Interview by Joanne Curran, associate editor at MDDUS