Feature: John Forsyth profiles Angela Grahame, Vice Dean of the Faculty of Advocates

Angela Grahame
Angela Grahame

As areas of traditional work are being closed down, the Faculty of Advocates is, to paraphrase the Star Trek prologue, looking to explore strange new areas of business, to seek new clients, discover new disputes to resolve, to boldly go where no advocates have gone before.

Perhaps Angela Grahame, elected Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Advocates last summer, is the right person for that sort of task. At school, she expressed an interest in the law. They said “don’t do that. What about geography? Become a teacher.” So — she did law anyway.

When she graduated from Aberdeen University and completed her traineeship, she expressed an interest in going to the Bar. She was warned against it. She had none of the right connections. So — she went to the Bar anyway.

Angela is clearly single-minded, which is likely to have been helpful in whichever career she pursued. The law wasn’t an obvious choice.

The first spark came not from family connections or peer group expectations but from daytime TV.

“I was at school in Leith and used to go home for my lunch. My mum and I used to watch a programme called Crown Court. I loved it. You got to watch a trial for some crime or other and then guess the verdict. I wasn’t thinking of it as a career. I wasn’t thinking about any career then. But there was something about the drama that probably burrowed into my subconscious.”

Angela’s career decisions appear to have been punctuated by conversations with her mother. She did “quite well” at school and was destined to be the first of her family to consider going to university.

“My dad was a plasterer and my mum worked for Edinburgh social work department so the idea of university was unknown territory for all of us. I remember sitting on a bus with my mum and she suggested studying law. The scene is still vivid in my memory. And the decision was sort of made.”

She added, “I remember in my second year in Aberdeen I went with some friends to a talk by Paul Cullen (now Lord Pentland) about life at the bar. It sounded brilliant but I was thinking ‘that’s all very well but really you have to be a man, privately educated and have a brain on a stick’.

“But he told us, What you really need is to be able to work hard and dedicate yourself to the law’. I thought, ‘I could do that’.” So — she did.

After a year as solicitor she pondered the wisdom of applying for admission to the Bar. Angela recalls another of those concise conversations with her mother along the lines of “Why not? Even if you don’t like it the experience won’t be wasted.”

She was called to the bar in 1995 “and I’ve loved every day of it since. There’s no better place to work. In fact, I said to the new intake of devils last year they will have the best days of their lives here. Maybe some of the worst days too when they are on the receiving end of a kicking from the Bench”. There’s a pause while she thinks of Lord Marnoch. “But this place does important work and they will be part of it.”

While building her own mixed practice Angela places great value on the early exposure to the high level legal work. She was a junior in the long-running litigation that followed the oil pollution when the Braer tanker ran aground on Shetland in 1993. “Our top practitioners were appearing for the parties in front of Lord Gill. I was new to the Bar and discovered not only the importance of being able to present complex technical issues on your feet but also the fundamental importance of understanding the brief and preparing the case.”

It’s a theme she returns to repeatedly in conversation – the skill of the advocate is in preparation and organisation every bit as much as presentation.

The message was hammered home in her two experiences of public inquiries, the Vale of Leven inquiry following the deaths from C.Difficile infection at Vale of Leven hospital and the Fingerprint Inquiry considering what to make of the fallout following the Shirley McKie prosecution and acquittal in 1999.

“I think the fingerprint inquiry was very effective. The McKie case had left a wound in the side of Scottish justice that had never properly healed.”

It isn’t uncommon to hear politicians or activists calling for a public inquiry into something most weeks but Angela is clear that to be effective it has to be focussed. “Sometimes the terms of reference can be a bit scattergun. And politicians and campaigners only think it has begun when the first witness starts his or her evidence. For them that’s the sign that something is happening. But the work done in the time between the terms of reference and the first public session is where the lawyers can make the difference identifying what is known about each element of the issue and identifying the questions that are still unanswered and have to be explored. It saves time in the end and leads to a more effective outcome.”

It’s fair to say Angela is an enthusiast for the advocate’s trade. She thinks the Faculty may have been too reticent in the past about its value to civil and criminal justice. But to continue to have those skills available and to draw on that experience the Faculty has to thrive.

The recent civil courts reform has pushed a lot of work out of the Court of Session into the sheriff courts by creating a £100,000 threshold for the value of a case. That has caused difficulties for the bar, especially the junior bar with the loss of business. The attrition in areas in which the Faculty was previously dominant has been a 40 year process since divorces suddenly disappeared to the sheriff courts in the 1970s.

Angela sees it as a challenge to be met head on.

“There’s no point in grumbling. Gordon Jackson was elected Dean last year when James Wolffe became Lord Advocate. Astonishingly, he is the first criminal practitioner to be elected Dean. I’m the first female to win an election for a Faculty post against a male candidate. Both Gordon and I see the need to make the Faculty more visible and possibly more adventurous.

“The first line in my particulars – my ‘manifesto’ I suppose – at the Faculty election was that I’d pursue new lines of business for members of the Faculty. So I have made contact with a range or regulatory bodies for the likes of nurses, social workers, midwives and care workers. They all have fitness to practice tribunals and conduct hearings. There has been a response there.

“I’ve looked at the Faculty’s direct access provisions. Members of a range of Royal colleges can instruct us directly. We have never really promoted engagement in these areas and the response from the Royal colleges has been enthusiastic. Because the Faculty never promoted it as an area of business most of the colleges didn’t even know they had that privilege.”

Before Christmas, Angela was also raising the profile of arbitration as an alternative means of resolving commercial disputes. The potential advantages of arbitration – speed, cost and privacy – over litigation in the public courts have been well canvassed for several years but still seem to have difficulty in gaining traction among Scotland’s businesses. The pull of speed, cost and privacy isn’t yet enough. The Faculty wants its members to give it a push from the perspective of creating new work.

If the metaphor is too daunting to imagine Gordon Jackson and Angela Grahame as Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura it may be enough to understand their understanding of their mission. Her strategy for the Faculty has also been her personal motto dating back to that first careers guidance stand off - “You stay invisible if you don’t make the effort.”