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MPs urge Bar Council to investigate advice on war

By Marie Woolf, Chief Political Correspondent 12 March 2005

The Attorney General is facing a damaging inquiry by the barristers' ruling body after the revelation by the country's most senior civil servant that Britain went to war on the basis of one page of legal advice.

MPs have lodged a formal complaint with the Bar Council, which regulates barristers, and asked for an investigation into Lord Goldsmith's conduct in offering his "definitive advice" on the legality of invading Iraq on a single page of A4. It came as the Government confirmed yesterday it would not release the legal advice for war despite a request to review its decisions.

Yesterday, Clare Short, the former international development secretary, was also told her complaint about the Attorney General's presentation of legal advice - with no supporting documentation - would be investigated by the council's complaints commissioner.

The chief executive of the Bar Council, David Hobart, confirmed in a letter to Ms Short that its complaints division would look into the matter. "I am told the inquiry will be independent," she said. The Attorney General has strongly denied Ms Short's allegations.

The inquiry could prove damaging to Tony Blair as it will look at what instructions the Prime Minister gave Lord Goldsmith when he asked him to produce his view of the legality of war without a second UN resolution.

It comes after the revelation by Sir Andrew Turnbull, the Cabinet Secretary, that a short parliamentary answer by the Attorney General was the "definitive advice" on the war sent to the Prime Minister and that there was "no other version".

Jack Straw was also under pressure after MPs claimed he "misled the Commons" over the legal advice on the war. The parliamentary leader of Plaid Cymru, Elfyn Llwyd, said there were "inconsistencies" and called for Mr Straw to "either explain himself or apologise."

He said the Foreign Secretary had implied the Government had a copy of the full legal advice during a debate in the Commons in March. On 9 March 2004 Mr Straw said that Lord Goldsmith "gave an outline of the case but he never published his advice".

"Jack Straw told MPs during my debate on the Attorney General's legal advice, in no uncertain terms, that there is a longer version of the advice that has not been published. Now the most senior civil servant says there was no other version. In that light, it seems the Foreign Secretary has misled members of Parliament," Mr Llwyd said.

But this week Sir Andrew admitted under cross-examination from MPs that the one-page parliamentary answer sent to MPs and peers was "the definitive advice that he had reached. It does not purport to be a summary of his advice," he added.

Senior lawyers said it was extraordinary that advice on such a serious issue should be produced on one piece of paper without accompanying documents or "reasonings".

Gordon Harris, partner at Wragge and Co said it was "frankly extraordinary". He said: "You can't produce serious legal advice on a single piece of paper. I would expect legal advice on war to run to 10 to 20 pages of argument at least supported by a couple of ring binders of documents."

Philippe Sands QC, professor of law at University College London, said the admission there was "no other version" beyond Lord Goldsmith's parliamentary answer implied there was no legal basis for invading Iraq without a second resolution.

He said the only formal legal opinion was that of 7 March to Mr Blair which is thought to have been equivocal about going to war without a second UN resolution.

"Sir Andrew Turnbull seems to have given the first confirmation from within government that there was no further legal advice in writing after the 7th March," he said. "It would be surprising for the Prime Minister to claim that formal legal advice could ever be given orally."

Yesterday, the Bar Council told The Independent that all the complaints on the advice would be taken seriously.