At the Commemoration Day ceremony earlier today, the University conferred the honorary degree of LLD on Baroness Scotland of Asthal, formerly Attorney-General.
James Chalmers, the Regius Professor of Law, made the following oration in promoting Baroness Scotland for the degree:
“Chancellor, by the authority of Senate, I present to you this person on whom the Senate desires you to confer the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws: Patricia Janet Scotland, the Right Honourable the Baroness Scotland of Asthal.
Patricia Scotland once said in a newspaper interview that she was “amazed by how many people know anything about me, or even are interested in me”. This modesty is misplaced.
Born in Dominica in 1955, her family moved to Britain when she was a young girl, and she attended school in Walthamstow. Her schools careers teacher advised her to become a supervisor at the local Sainsbury’s.
She did not. Instead, she studied law. Called to the Bar in 1977, she went on to become the youngest Queen’s Counsel since William Pitt the Younger, and the first black female QC. She achieved similar firsts on being appointed a government minister in 1999 and Attorney-General in 2007. From this remarkable record, you may begin to see why people know about her.
Important as these firsts are, they do not give a full picture of the significance of Patricia Scotland’s career. While in practice as a barrister, she specialised in family and public law, particularly cases involving child abuse, mental health, and housing. She co-founded a successful legal chambers, but her career took a different turn when, in 1997, she was appointed as a Labour peer. She served in the Foreign Office, Lord Chancellor’s Department and Home Office before her appointment as Attorney-General. Throughout this time, she was recognised as one of the most effective parliamentarians. She was named Peer of the Year by Channel 4 in 2004, and received similar awards from the Political Studies Association and The Spectator. She demonstrated considerable skill outside of Parliament as well, abseiling down a crevasse on a Foreign Office trip to Antarctica.
Throughout her career in government, she championed the fight against domestic violence, having felt passionately about the issue ever since dealing with her first domestic violence case as a 21 year old trainee barrister. She made it clear when appointed as a minister that she was determined to tackle this issue. Her work in this area included the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004. It was, as she explained when opening the Second Reading of the Bill, “the most radical overhaul of domestic violence legislation in thirty years [reflecting] the fact that domestic violence is unacceptable, that victims must be protected and offenders punished”.
One of the Act’s most significant innovations was the creation of a new offence of causing or allowing the death of a child or vulnerable adult, “to end the unacceptable situation in which those jointly accused of murder evade justice by remaining silent or blaming each other”, an offence used over the next five years to successfully prosecute 31 people, including those responsible for the death of Baby P. She rightly describes herself as proud of her work in reducing the level of domestic violence in England and Wales, and has continued to speak out on that issue since leaving office. Her leadership in this area echoes strongly in Scotland today, where the First Minister has identified tackling violence against women as a key priority of the Scottish Government.
In the same newspaper interview I mentioned earlier, Patricia Scotland said that she never set out to be a role model, but simply tried to do the best she could. Nevertheless, a role model she is, and a remarkable one.
In the year when we start to consider the legacy of the Commonwealth Games, held in Glasgow last year, and the greater awareness of our links with the wider Commonwealth, there can be few individuals who capture what the Commonwealth can represent at its best than Baroness Scotland. As part of our Commonwealth Games activities the University hosted the 33Fifty Commonwealth Young Leaders programme, and one of the highlights of this programme was when Baroness Scotland gave the keynote speech to the graduating participants – encouraging them to fulfil their potential wherever they had begun, drawing movingly on her own life story.
Chancellor, I invite you to confer the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws on Patricia Janet Scotland.”