Chris Boothman: Standards Board

The Standards Board is an organisation under fire. The local government watchdog is facing calls for its abolition following negative publicity over recent investigations. The most high-profile case involved Paul Dimoldenberg, a Westminster councillor who was investigated for whistleblowing in the ‘homes for votes’ scandal involving Dame Shirley Porter. The Standards Board investigation was said to have cost the organisation (and therefore the taxpayer) £50,000 in external legal fees, half of its annual budget.

Chris Boothman, head of legal services at the board, defends the decision to investigate Dimoldenberg. “As a watchdog, we can’t decide what we investigate,” he says. “If there’s a breach of the code we have to investigate.”

And as for the large amount of money spent on the case, Boothman believes the organisation was left with little option. “We were responding to the pressure we were put under by the defendant,” he explains. “Once Dimoldenberg instructed a QC, we had to follow suit.”

Dimoldenberg was found to be in breach of the board’s code of conduct, as there were no provisions for a public interest defence. And although the code has now been changed so that councillors can leak information to the media if it is in the public interest, the board’s future is still in doubt.

Boothman does not think the criticisms of the board in respect of the Dimoldenberg case are justified, but he admits that the organisation is facing a series of challenges as to how it carries out its work. “At the moment we’re undergoing a review process that will probably reduce our responsibilities,” he concedes. “There are also plans to downsize the board and move us out of London.” The board is meant to be relocating to Manchester from London, but the move has been delayed, prompting further speculation about its future.

The Standards Board was set up in 2001 to promote ethical behaviour across its member organisations and to investigate breaches of its code of conduct. The board works with thousands of authorities, including 386 local authorities, 8,350 parish councils and 43 police authorities.

Boothman has been with the organisation almost since the beginning, helping to set up and define its legal department. “Our primary functions are to keep the organisation out of trouble and to make sure our cases are robust,” he says.

Boothman has eight lawyers on his team. The key requirement for a position in the team is a background in local government. Boothman has been able to ensure that his lawyers take a hands-on approach to their work.

The board’s lawyers represent it at the majority of the tribunals and outside counsel are only brought in for very big cases, or when specialist knowledge is required. “Because we started as a new organisation, I decided it would be both good for the organisation and good for the staff to be doing as much of the advocacy as possible,” explains Boothman.

It is a heavy workload – Boothman estimates that every lawyer on his team attends on average two tribunals a week.

Boothman has worked in the public sector for most of his career. Before he joined the Standards Board he spent 10 years at the Commission for Racial Equality as legal director. During his tenure there was the inquiry into the death of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, which subsequently led to changes to the race relations laws. He has also spent time working for the London Boroughs of Hackney and Camden as well as the Greater London Council.

But it could all have been so different, because Boothman started his life as a litigator at Gordon & James Morton Carey defending “murderers and rapists”, as he puts it. After a few years, not wanting to be “pigeonholed”, he made the leap into the public sector.

Boothman’s dedication to the public sector, though, would still appear to come second to one of his lifelong loves – the Notting Hill Carnival. For the past 18 months Boothman has sat on the carnival’s board, but his association with Europe’s biggest street party goes much further than that. As a boy he used to help his mother sell food at the event before taking up the steel drums and being part of the parade. Not one to miss out on a chance to party, Boothman still dons a costume every year to dance round the streets of West London.

And with the future of the Standards Board uncertain, Boothman appears to be already thinking about a change of career. He has been reviewing the newspapers for openings at some of London’s radio stations and admits to “a desire to work in the media”.

Whatever the prospects for the Standards Board, it would seem that, with his media ambitions and carnival cavorting, Boothman is likely to ride out the storm.
Chris Boothman
Head of legal services
Standards Board

Statistics
Organisation Standards Board
Sector Public sector
Employees 100
Legal spend £100,000
Legal capability Nine
Head of legal services Chris Boothman
Reporting to Chief executive David Prince
Main chambers Blackstone, Cloisters, Landmark and Matrix