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Professor Richard Cogdell

Stephen Laws CB (LLB 1972)

April 2008

Stephen Laws has been First Parliamentary Counsel since August 2006 - the first non-Oxbridge graduate to hold the office since the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel was established in 1869. He is the permanent secretary in charge of the Office, the main work of which is drafting Government Bills for introduction into Parliament and advising on related Parliamentary procedure and handling. Consequently he is one of the three most senior lawyers in the Civil Service. (The other two are the DPP and the Treasury Solicitor).

After graduating from Bristol with a First in law in 1972, Stephen spent a year as an assistant lecturer at the University and was called to the Bar at Middle Temple in 1973. After pupillage and a short period in practice, he moved to the Home Office as a legal assistant in 1975 and then to the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel in 1976. There he began to rise through the ranks, becoming Deputy Parliamentary Counsel in 1985, and then Parliamentary Counsel in 1991, before taking up his current role. He has also been seconded to the Law Commission on two occasions. Stephen was awarded the CB in 1996.

Why did you choose to study at Bristol?
I am afraid it was not a very well thought-through decision. I knew I wanted to be a lawyer and I relied very heavily on the advice from my school about what would be a good place to study law. They said Bristol and it was. The high reputation of Bristol, which it retains, was obviously an important factor. I do remember thinking that I would rather be in a city than in one of what were the then, 1968-69, new campus universities.

What is your favourite memory from Bristol?
There are many good memories, a lot of them personal and associated with the students and staff I came across at what turned out to be a friendly and supportive institution. But I suppose one of the memories I recount most often is finding myself involved in a real legal case within weeks of arriving as a new law student at Badock Hall. The voting age had just been reduced from 21 to 18 and, because my mother and father were moving house, I decided to register to vote in Bristol, rather than at home. Only a few students did this, but there was a potential for a large number to do so in the marginal constituency that included Stoke Bishop. Our "residence" in Bristol was challenged by the local agent for one of the parties and I found myself in the law library, on my own behalf, learning all about "residence" for the purposes of election law. I argued my own case before the electoral registration officer and - it has to be said - I lost. But there was then an appeal to the county court judge and subsequently to the Court of Appeal - for which qualified lawyers were used - and eventually our right to vote was established. For any lawyers reading this, the case is called Fox v Stirk. Julian Fox was a law student a year ahead of me and he qualified for legal aid, so the case was in his name.

Who has been an inspirational person in your life?
I am not sure if this question requires me to think of a person who has actively inspired me - a living person - or if I am able to choose an historical figure. I clearly want to choose someone from history, even though that widens the field rather. However the choice from history is certainly easier, and it has to be St Thomas More, the saint of both public servants and lawyers. The work of the Parliamentary Counsel involves "drawing the line" but usually only in the technical sense. Thomas More is the man whose life demonstrated how to confront the need to draw the line when conscience was involved. The Civil Service has a leadership model - a diagram that illustrates the qualities that leadership requires - and it has "integrity" at its centre. The inspirational life of Thomas More is, I think, the life to consider when trying to understand what integrity means.

What are you most proud of?
Again there are many things of which I am proud: some of them in my personal life and some at work. So far as the work ones are concerned, much of my 33 years in the Civil Service has been spent solving problems, most of it with technical, linguistic and legal problems, but latterly also with more complex organisational, logistical or human problems. I am proud of a number of the solutions I have found over the years. But the thing of which I have to be most proud is being the leader of the collection of highly talented and professional people who make up the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel. They are lawyers of the highest intellectual capacity and skill, and they demonstrate great dedication to producing the most accurate and accessible legislation that is possible, and so ensuring that our democratic law-making process works effectively. I am very proud to have been entrusted with the responsibility for this important contribution to the working of Government and to securing that it continues to provide an excellent service to Ministers, and ultimately, to the public.

If you could study again, which subject would you choose and why?
As a Parliamentary Counsel, I am of course questioning the question, again. Does this mean what would I study if I could go back and have my choice at 18 again? Or does it mean what would I study with all I know now if I had the opportunity, and the energy, to be an undergraduate again at the age of 58?

The answer to the first question would have to be law. I have been tremendously privileged to do the job I have. I cannot think of a better job for me and I would happily go back and study law again, but hopefully I would organise my own approach to law better than I did nearly 40 years ago.

The choice of what subject I would choose if I were going back to university now, at the age of 58, is more difficult. In preparation for my current job, I have had to become acquainted with many of the topics that would form part of the curriculum for an MBA and I regret that I have not had the opportunity to devote myself to those topics in a sustained and academic way. Also I have tried over the years to improve my foreign language skills: attempting to keep my French competent and to develop a capacity in Italian. Perhaps I would be tempted to take the opportunity to finish one or both of those tasks.

But, on reflection, I think that the answer, for a mature student, would have to be something that would be entirely pleasurable, untainted by any desire for self-improvement. So it would need to be a study of history. Historical biographies and studies are one of my major sources of relaxation. My work has sometimes given me a front seat view of current events; and the events of the past and their parallels in the present have a great and constant fascination for me.

 

Stephen Laws CB (LLB 1972)