Sir Stephen Laws

Doctor of Laws Sir Stephen Laws

Wednesday 18 July 2012 at 11.15 am - Orator: Professor Celia Wells, OBE

Madam Chancellor,

It is hard to escape the influence of law. It is harder still to understand how law works. There are very few professional lawyers who have the skill and expertise to be able to convert the aims and aspirations of the government, and of members of parliament, into Acts of Parliament.

We are today recognising the contributions to the public legal service of Sir Stephen Laws, for the role that he has played in the making of statute law.  He rose during his 37 year career as a lawyer in the Civil Service to the most senior position in the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, where he was responsible for drafting the Bills that eventually become acts of Parliament.

His connections with Bristol go back over 40 years. As an undergraduate from 1969 to 1972 he soon made his mark. In his first year he lived in Badock Hall, one of the Stoke Bishop halls of residence.   The voting age had just been reduced from 21 to 18 and, showing an early interest in Parliamentary affairs, he joined with students who attempted to register to vote here in Bristol. When their registration was challenged, Stephen undertook his first piece of legal research:  what was the meaning of residence for the purposes of electoral law? He argued his own case before the Electoral Registration Officer and lost. The case was eventually resolved in the Court of Appeal and the students’ right to vote in Bristol was established. For those of you who would like to read it, the case is called Fox v Stirk and was reported in 1970.

Stephen was elected chair of the Law Club and he represented Bristol in the Jessup International mooting competition. He also recalls taking part in a mock trial in which he cross examined fellow student Paul (later Lord) Boateng who was playing the role of a female street worker. Even 40 years ago, studying law was not all about dry books in the library.

As the first member of his family to go to University, Stephen became the only person in his year to receive a first class honours degree.  In those days it was not uncommon to go straight from undergraduate study to a lecturer post and this was what Stephen did.  In the summer following graduation,  he found time not only to prepare for the classes he would be teaching but also to take the Bar Finals, in which he was ranked fourth in the country.  He was called to the Bar at Middle Temple in 1973, moving shortly after to become a lawyer in the Home Office and, within a year, had joined the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel.  In 2006 Stephen became First Parliamentary Counsel, which meant he was the permanent secretary in charge of the Office and one of the three most senior lawyers in the Civil Service.  He was the first non-Oxbridge graduate to hold this post.

It is not surprising to learn that in parallel with his career in the public legal service, Stephen has been a strong supporter of the Access to Bristol project, encouraging school children to consider going to university who might not otherwise have done so. He has also chaired the Civil Service Benevolent Fund (CSBF), which provides support to current and former members of the Civil Service who are facing hardship.

It is time to say a little more about the Office of Parliamentary Counsel; it provides a centralised legislative drafting and Parliamentary advisory service to Government departments. As Stephen has commented, this often gave him a front seat view of current events. Among the legislation to which he has contributed, applying the skills of plain drafting and the expertise to avoid obtuseness, are many Acts of Parliament that our law graduates today will recognise and some they may not. They provide a telling snapshot of the political and economic transformations of the last 30 years. He worked on the Race Relations Act 1976; and on the Telecommunications Act 1984 (which set the template for the regulation of privatised industries). He was involved in rewriting the VAT and excise provisions for the European Single Market in 1992 and in creating the windfall tax in 1997. More recently, and against extremely tight deadlines, he worked on the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005, which was both controversial and difficult from a Parliamentary point of view. As constitutional adviser he helped to complete the devolution to a power sharing system in Northern Ireland in 2007.  And he was at the centre of things during the historic transition to a coalition Government in 2010.

This list of achievements gives a flavour of the extraordinary breadth of knowledge over which Parliamentary Counsel need to have command. In addition, Stephen was twice seconded to the Law Commission of England and Wales to assist in the production of draft Bills to accompany their recommendations.  Madam Chancellor, in your role as a Law Commissioner during one of those secondments, you will no doubt remember working with Stephen on a draft Bill on Divorce and Separation.

For those of us who teach, study or practise law,  Stephen’s foresight in the potential for using new technology in publishing statutes is one for which we are all immensely in his debt. Some of us here will remember, as will Stephen, the laborious process of manually checking whether legislation was in force and tracking subsequent amendments via large and cumbersome volumes in the library. The new technologies have made this infinitely less burdensome although, we might agree, challenging in other ways.

Stephen has described the work of a Parliamentary Counsel as fascinating, with intriguing problems and puzzles to solve. An early example concerned the competing jurisdictions of the Westminster licensing justices and the Board of Green Cloth – which is not a bridge card table but a Court with jurisdiction over taverns within the area of Whitehall. That problem turned out to be quite easy when he realised that the Board of Green Cloth and the Westminster Licensing Justices had identical compositions. A more recent puzzle was how, in connection with the changes to the Royal Succession, a consequential amendment should be made to the Treason Act 1351, an Act written in Norman French and punctuated – to lethal effect in the case of Roger Casement – in the medieval style.

It is fortunate then that he finds constant fascination in reviewing events of the past in the light of their parallels in the present and that reading historical biographies is a major source of relaxation. 

When he was asked in an interview for the Law Alumni newsletter which person had most inspired him, he chose St Thomas More, the saint for both public servants and lawyers.  As he explained, the work of the Parliamentary Counsel involves "drawing the line" but usually only in the technical sense. Thomas More’s life demonstrated how to confront the need to draw the line when conscience was involved. Integrity is at the centre of the Civil Service leadership model and the inspirational life of Thomas More is, Stephen suggests, the life to consider when trying to understand what integrity means. 

Stephen has stated that he is very proud to have been entrusted with the responsibility for an important contribution to the working of Government, through excellent service to Ministers, and ultimately, to the public.  I can think of no better qualities that this university should recognise.  Madam Chancellor, I present to you Sir Stephen Laws as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa


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