Hannah Wiskin outlines the work of the Government Legal Service
We can’t pretend that the Government Legal Service (GLS) is the same as other employers.
Simply put, our work and our philosophy are different. We have only one client; but that client is the British government.
Providing a wide range of legal services to the government means that lawyers in the GLS (be they solicitors or barristers) operate at the cutting edge of law and politics. Regardless of whether we are advising government ministers on the legality of a proposed policy, creating new legislation, or presenting the government in high profile litigation cases, it’s fair to say that our work is unique. The legal solutions we provide pervade almost every aspect of today’s society.
The GLS is the term used to describe some 2,000 lawyers working in the legal teams of 30 government departments of state, regulatory bodies, agencies and other public bodies. These range from large departments of state such as the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, to smaller bodies such as the Office of Fair Trading, the Health and Safety Executive and the Charity Commission.
Our work is determined by the business in which our departments are engaged but will typically involve the widest possible range of public and private law matters. In the course of any given day, the legal questions to be considered by GLS lawyers will typically include everything from the armed forces to zoology and anything in between, including charities, commercial and procurement work, education, employment, environment, farming, finance, health, human rights, justice, social security, taxation and trade.
Invariably the issues we are asked to advise upon are complex, novel politically sensitive and often in the public eye. GLS lawyers work not only with other lawyers but a part of a wider team including policy makers and professionals from other specialist areas (such as economists).
Role of barristers and solicitors
Although the GLS recruits from both sides of the legal profession (both at the pre and post qualification stages), it doesn’t distinguish between barristers and solicitors in terms of the work on offer. We are all ‘lawyers’ and both sides of the profession perform similar roles. Lawyers in policy teams are required to provide legal advice to civil servant policy makers and to government ministers. Those in litigation teams will oversee all aspects of cases including briefing external counsel on those cases that are due to go to court.
Government lawyers are committed to working in the public interest, making a positive contribution to the lives of large sections of people through the laws they help shape or enforce. Along with the rest of the civil service we have a unique constitutional role in helping the government formulate policies, implement decisions and administer public services. This requires integrity, honesty, impartiality and objectivity. In particular we have to be prepared to advise on the public sector’s duty to comply with the law including international law and treaty obligations and to uphold the administration of justice.
And as civil servants we are passionate about diversity and fully recognise the need for our workforce to be reflective of the communities we serve. Lawyers are recruited through fair and non-discriminatory employment processes. As at December 2011, 62% of the total GLS population were women and at the Senior Civil, Service level, 46% were women. Of those who responded to GLS ethnic monitoring, 14% of the total population declared they were from a BAME background (7% at SCS level). We are proud that in both cases this is higher than comparable figures for the legal profession.