[Pounds Sterling]100k Downing Street Law Chief Suspended; Privy Council Registrar in Charge of Highly Sensitive Commonwealth Law Cases in Disciplinary Inquiry

Article excerpt

Byline: Christopher Leake HOME AFFAIRS EDITOR

A SENIOR civil servant in one of the Government's most prestigious posts has been suspended from her [pounds sterling]100,000-a-year job after an investigation was launched into her conduct.

Solicitor Mary MacDonald - registrar of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which rules on appeals from Commonwealth countries - has been on 'gardening leave' for a fortnight and is now the subject of an internal disciplinary inquiry.

The circumstances of 50-year-old Ms MacDonald's suspension were last night shrouded in mystery, although the Ministry of Justice, which supervises the Privy Council, insisted there was no question of financial irregularity.

Colleagues of the tall, blonde Canadian-born civil servant insisted she was on sick leave, but were unable to say when she would return to her office in Downing Street.

Her absence was particularly noticeable because she is said to have often been accompanied to work by a pet parrot, whose cage she placed on a windowsill.

Ms MacDonald's suspension from a pivotal Whitehall institution, which acts on behalf of the Queen, will raise concerns that another part of the political system - which has always been above reproach - has been compromised.

The Judicial Committee - which sits in the Privy Council Chamber in Downing Street - acts as the final court of appeal for cases referred from Commonwealth countries. These include murder, rape, human rights, appeals against death sentences and multibillion-pound commercial disputes.

Ms MacDonald plays a key role in running the court, where her powers extend to giving advice to the Law Lords on whether to allow or reject appeals.

She sits as legal adviser in the Privy Council chamber - a small wood-panelled room with green leather furniture - where cases are decided by three Law Lords.

Ms MacDonald gives directions on legal arguments and rules on high-powered legal documents from all over the world.

She has been involved in appeals in capital cases for murder from Commonwealth countries, including the Caribbean.

For a variety of reasons, the Privy Council often rules capital punishment 'unconstitutional'. And if defence lawyers can drag a case on for more than five years, hanging is commuted to life imprisonment on humanitarian grounds because the murderer is deemed to have suffered enough while waiting on Death Row.

Last year, Ms MacDonald officiated over an appeal by New Zealander David Bain against his convictions in 1995 for murdering his parents and three siblings.

Bain served 12 years of a life sentence, but petitioned the Judicial Committee for an acquittal..

His final appeal to the Privy Council was successful in May 2007.

Finding there had been a substantial miscarriage of justice, the Privy Council quashed his convictions and recommended a retrial. …