UK Prime Minister Keir Starmer names Matrix Chambers barrister as attorney general

Richard Hermer KC takes over brief from shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry

Richard Hermer KC

New UK Prime Minister Keir Starmer has appointed Richard Hermer KC of Matrix Chambers to be his attorney general. Hermer will be made a life peer to fulfil the role.

Hermer, formerly chair of Matrix Chambers’ management committee, is a distinguished public law, human rights and environmental barrister known for his work litigating against previous governments.

He took silk in 2009 at Doughty Street Chambers, where Starmer was co-head of chambers, joining Matrix in 2012 before being appointed deputy High Court judge in 2019.

Hermer’s appointment supplants Emily Thornberry, newly re-elected MP for Islington South and Finsbury, previously the shadow attorney general. 

Sources familiar with the individuals suggested that Starmer had chosen Hermer for his long-term trust alongside proven advisory, litigation nous and outstanding advocacy, prioritising the legal merit of the government’s law officers as politically appointed legal advisiers.

The attorney general is head of the Government Legal Department, the Serious Fraud Office and the Crown Prosecution Service, which Starmer previously ran as the Director of Public Prosecutions before starting his political career.

Thornberry’s career at the Bar came later in life, where she was a junior at now-defunct Tooks Chambers before an extensive and successful political career, in which she served as shadow foreign secretary to Jeremy Corbyn MP, among other senior posts. She also ran against Starmer for the Labour Party leadership in 2020. She held the shadow attorney general brief for three years.

Reacting, Thornberry said she was “very sorry and surprised” not to be appointed, telling the BBC that despite her “personal disappointment”, she welcomed Labour’s victory, acknowledging that Hermer was “a much more accomplished lawyer than I could ever hope to be” and would do “an outstanding job”.

Hermer’s predecessor, Victoria Prentis KC, was a career government lawyer before becoming an MP. Tory Sir Geoffrey Cox KC was also a highly successful silk when appointed in 2018. Others, however, have been far less accomplished.

Townend said Hermer had “a stellar career as [a] public lawyer”, adding his appointment sent “a strong message of the government’s intention to observe domestic law obligations and commitment to the international rules-based order”. 

He added: “Lawyers in Europe and beyond had been bemused and saddened by the recent and repeated undermining of our long and proud legal traditions” and “hostile rhetoric about whether the country had to keep to its treaty and domestic legal obligations”. 

Rachel Holmes, chief executive at Matrix, commented that Hermer had “played an important role in Matrix’s development and success”, professionally and practically, while his management “helped to shape so much of the innovative work that takes place here”.

Meantime, Shabina Mahmood’s appointment as Lord Chancellor and justice secretary has been welcomed by the two legal professional bodies in England and Wales. She is the first woman lawyer to hold the role.  

Law Society president Nick Emmerson called it “a unique opportunity to bring much-needed change to our justice system and address the longstanding neglect and underinvestment that have left it on the verge of collapse”.

Emmerson added that Mahmood’s challenges are “significant” and demanded urgent attention, calling such work “a long-term project, requiring a collaborative effort”.

Bar Council chair Sam Townend KC expressed similar thoughts: “It is no secret that the new government faces a genuine crisis in the justice system, the result of years of underinvestment.”

Both men stressed the importance of legal services to the UK. Townend said the new government should “secure our global reputation for legal services, which secures billions of pounds for the economy”.

Joining Mahmood in the justice department will be prison reformer James Timpson, who will become a member of the House of Lords, and Heidi Alexander MP, who defeated Sir Robert Buckland KC, a former Lord Chancellor, in last Thursday’s general election.

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