The nature of our work means that our best days often have invisible results – a contract agreed or renegotiated to better support the House, or a piece of litigation successfully defended. Or we might be working on something where the product is visible, even if our work is behind the scenes, for example work which is connected to the Chamber or Committees.
One of our team, when working with the House of Commons Scrutiny Unit, advised the Joint Committee on the draft Modern Slavery Bill and was responsible for producing the majority of that Committee’s alternative bill, much of which found its way in one form or another into the Act.
Seeing the result of her work and that of her colleagues being discussed in the press in terms of prosecutions, increased publicity of the plight of those who are trafficked or enslaved, or even simply a renewed focus from companies on their supply chains, was exciting.
Another more visible aspect of our work is drafting and advising on contracts for commercial filming in the House of Commons and joint parts of the Parliamentary Estate, the first major project being the BBC’s documentary Inside the Commons, and the second being the feature film Suffragette – a particularly important film in terms of portraying the history of women’s participation in Parliament. It was very rewarding to see the result of our colleague’s work on the small and big screens last year.
Who, or what, inspires you most and why?
Working as part of the United Kingdom’s legislature and making sure that the democratic process is supported – be that in its buildings, its services, its staff or directly in connection with the Chamber and Committees – is inspiring in itself.
What have you discovered during your career which you would have benefitted from knowing as a student?
First, that sometimes the answer to the problem is a practical answer, not a legal one. The legal position is the background to the decision, but it doesn’t have to govern it.
Second, that there are lots of different ways in which you can have a career in law – beyond the solicitor / barrister in private practice, there are lots of really interesting, challenging and valuable careers working in-house, as legal advisors for charities or campaigning organisations or also working for local or central government.
Working as part of the Office of Speaker’s Counsel and having responsibility for the legal services of the House of Commons must bring its own particular challenges. It’s not a job that many of our readers will know much about. What’s an average day like for you?
Our Office provides legal advice to the Speaker of the House of Commons, the House and its departments. We provide general legal advice, advice on statutory interpretation and advice on European Union law.
In the general advice team we advise on all areas of law and regularly provide advice on parliamentary privileges, contracts, employment law, procurement, personal injury, and freedom of information and data protection. On a typical day we can expect to be advising on four or five areas of law on paper or in meetings. Learning how to pick up a question, dissect it to work out which areas of law, legislation and case law might apply, and then advising is a good challenge! As is meeting colleagues to work out the practical ins and outs of their query – a particular challenge with expert information for construction or IT projects. Our advice might be for use within one of the House departments, for example on employment law, or could be outward facing, such as advising on procurement or contracts for filming on the Parliamentary Estate.
We work with a really wide range of people, including Members of Parliament and staff of the House in all sorts of positions. In common with all legal posts, our work involves helping people to solve or manage their problems. It’s very rewarding to know that we are contributing to the House running smoothly, both in its official work but also behind the scenes.
Are there any particular skills it takes to work in an institution like the Palace of Westminster, and what would you tell someone considering a role like yours?
Being open minded, happy to be challenged by researching an unknown area of law and being able to think around a problem, is key to our roles. The breadth of areas of law that we cover and the wide range of questions that we are asked to answer is a bit mind-boggling to lawyers who specialise in discrete areas of law. In addition, even the most basic question about contract or even lost property can have a parliamentary angle – we always have to be alive to the constitutional position of the House of Commons as part of the legislature, and to its privileges. It can be quite fun explaining to a lawyer on the other side of a dispute that they cannot do something because of Article IX of the Bill of Rights 1688, or because it is a matter within the exclusive cognisance of Parliament, or because a particular statute doesn’t apply to the House of Commons!
Another thing that really separates this job from private legal practice is the need to be impartial and yet still satisfy the “client”. That can be a challenge in the highly politically charged atmosphere of a Committee. In private practice, where the client is paying and there is no political context, partiality is part of the job and reselling work. Two members of the team advise the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee, so providing and being seen to provide impartial advice is of heightened importance at the moment.
On top of all of this, we interact with a very broad range of people across all departments of the House as well as Members of Parliament and Peers. On any day we can be discussing a personal injury case with a colleague in the maintenance team, banqueting contracts with catering, employment issues with HR, privilege questions with Clerks, advising a Committee of MPs, and appearing before the Speaker.
Join us on 19 March 2016 for our Annual Student Conference to hear Andrea Coomber, Director of JUSTICE, in conversation with Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty. Sign up now.