Douglas Wilson on seeking justice for atrocities in Ukraine – and the Christmas the AGO boss spent in Baghdad

The Attorney General's Office DG unpacks legal support being offered to Ukraine and the challenges of balancing resources
Attorney general Victoria Prentis speaks at the meeting of G7 justice ministers in Berlin in November. Photo: dpa picture alliance/Alamy Stock Photo

By CSW staff

05 Jan 2023


What has been your highlight of the last 12 months?

It’s been a tumultuous year with eight changes of one or more law officers. The upside has been seeing how my colleagues across the AG’s Office have welcomed each new minister and pivoted to brief them, support their priorities and help keep the show on the road.

What was your most difficult decision in 2022?

One of the surprises to many who come to AGO, even those like me who have spent time in the intelligence agencies, is how little we are able to talk about some of the most interesting areas of our work.  Everyone – even governments – needs the space to be able to obtain and digest full and frank legal advice. Within the UK government, there is a constitutional rule called the Law Officers’ Convention that prevents not just the disclosure of any advice given, but also revealing whether any such advice exists or was sought. Against this background, I can’t talk about the decision I found most difficult this year.

However, I can talk about Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. The law officers are involved in many aspects of the UK’s contribution to support Ukraine, but one of the most difficult is providing what help and support we can to the country’s brave and determined prosecutors.

“The contribution Howard, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the AGO and many others are making may play some part in helping ensure justice is meted out to at least some of those committing atrocities”

Working across the whole of government and led by the then-attorney general and the deputy prime minister, we scoured the UK system – within government and beyond – and offered whatever we could. To give just one example, the attorney appointed arguably the world’s best international criminal lawyer, Sir Howard Morrison KC, with whom I’d worked closely in Iraq and knew was capable of working well in the most challenging conditions. Howard has been going to Ukraine to help their prosecutors and judges seek justice for the most appalling atrocities. The contribution that Howard, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the AGO and many others are making in this area may play some part in helping ensure justice is meted out to at least some of those committing atrocities, and perhaps even deter some from happening in the first place.

What is the biggest challenge facing your organisation in 2023, and how are you preparing to meet that challenge as an organisation?

Our job is to make law and politics work together at the heart of the constitution – that is always a big challenge, but perhaps even more so when politics are in flux and resources are thin. Looking ahead, we are gearing up to do our bit to continue the positive progress being made in key areas of the criminal justice system, especially in improving outcomes on serious offences like rape. This is a team sport across government, where the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office and the CPS have key roles. Lots of progress has been made, but the challenge is to keep pushing as hard as we can to go further, and do so against a time of straitened resources. As part of our efforts within AGO, we’ve really upped our game on the effective use of data to both measure where we are and work out how best to get to where we want to be – and target resources where they can make the most difference. As key personnel change, we want to embed the cutting-edge use of data in our work on the criminal justice system, and look to expand its use into the other areas of our work too.

And personally, as a leader?

My constant challenge is to work out how can I add the most value to the work of the brilliant team at AGO. The whole team here are highly empowered, so my daily quandary is where to gently prod, encourage a different course, step in to help myself or – far more often than not! – leave brilliant people well alone to get on with their jobs.

It's not only Santa who has to work at Christmas. What is your best, worst or weirdest experience of working in the festive season? 

My weirdest and worst Christmas experience at work was in Baghdad in 2005. On duty in the embassy throughout Christmas – not a particularly notable holiday for Iraqi people – we were in the thick of difficult political and constitutional negotiations to put an end to the violence. Alongside that, we were all trying to look after each other in the embassy team, spending long periods away from families and friends at a time of year when those are the people we congregate towards. On the day itself, we tried to conjure up some festivities by making do with what we could find locally in a short time window. I remember trying to have a semblance of a Christmas lunch (where we didn’t dare ask what form of bird we might be eating) with the main stage entertainment being a senior ambassador dressing up in a locally made Santa outfit. At this point, several large explosions close by made us run for the bunkers – then thank our lucky stars when we emerged unscathed.  Christmases ever since have seemed tranquil and blessed by comparison (even with my in-laws).

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