Keir Starmer: a radical lawyer gets tough
24 January 2010 | Updated: 25 January 2010 11:44 am | By Corinne McPartland
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When human rights barrister Keir Starmer QC became director of public prosecutions (DPP) in 2008, he came up against a barrage of criticism that suggested he would not be able to step up to the plate as head of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).
Some people nodded to the fact that the country needed ‘tough leadership’ on prosecutions, not some ‘soft, liberal, human rights lefty’. But Starmer has proven his critics wrong and at the same time scored highly on the radicalism front.
In some ways his radicalism reflects his background, which is not typical of lawyers generally, never mind a QC or DPP. The clever son of a toolmaker and nurse who was schooled at a local grammar school, Starmer is an example of what social mobility tsar Alan Milburn called for in his recent report into access into the legal profession.
A product of Doughty Street Chambers, where he took silk in 2002, serving as joint head of chambers, Starmer’s stint as DPP has so far been demanding.
Unsurprisingly, Starmer’s role means he is never far removed from headline news. Last week’s release of Munir Hussain, who had been jailed for attacking a burglar, is a case in point. When Hussain was convicted last December, Starmer was vocal in his defence of the existing law. He also rejected Tory plans to give greater legal protection to have-a-go heroes.
His interim policy on assisted suicide, following a string of cases in which terminally ill Britons have ended their lives at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, has also brought about much debate.
In July last year Blackstone Chambers’ Lord Pannick QC and Bindmans partner Saimo Chahal celebrated a win on the last day of the House of Lords after the Law Lords found unanimously in favour of their client Debbie Purdy.
The ruling paved the way for thousands of people who, like Purdy, want to know in what circumstances prosecutions would be brought against those who helped relatives to die.
The Law Lords asked Starmer to spell out his thinking.
“The law on assisted suicide is reasonably clear. It’s an offence to assist the suicide of another. That obviously covers a wide range of conduct, and when Parliament introduced that offence it also introduced a requirement that each case is to have the consent of the DPP before it’s prosecuted,” Starmer coyly says, not wanting to anticipate his finalised policy, which is due this spring.
He adds: “And their reason for doing that is clear. It didn’t want every case that came up to be automatically prosecuted.”
Starmer has also had to make decisions on whether to prosecute Shadow Immigration Minister Damian Green over leaked Home Office documents, whether to reopen the News of the World phone-tapping case, whether to pursue MPs over fraudulent expense claims and whether to prosecute the police over the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protest in April last year.
The father of one also has strong opinions on human rights and the right to a fair trial.
He admits that he is not wholly in favour of Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge’s decision to put four men accused of armed robbery at Heathrow Airport on trial without a jury.
“I’m strongly in favour of jury trials, as I think most people are, but I do recognise that in very exceptional cases trials will have to proceed without a jury,” he says. “That has to be on the order of a court, so the general and overriding presumption should be jury trial, with very, very limited exceptions.”
But Starmer has also been busy taking the CPS on what he calls “a journey into the 21st century”.
He recently spent nine months visiting all 42 regional CPS divisions and talking to almost 2,200 of his staff face-to-face.
He claims his reason for doing so was to understand properly every aspect of the prosecution service, what it was doing well and the ways it needs to improve.
“I said I didn’t want power breakfasts or I didn’t want lunch with senior members of management. I wanted to meet the staff face-to-face in small groups in which they sat down and talked to me,” explains Starmer.
But this was not to be a one-off exercise. Starmer is taking to the road once again this year to speak to more frontline CPS staff.
He has so far suggested that the CPS scrap prosecutors’ traditional paper files in favour of an electronic currency and is looking at ways the organisation can become more transparent to the public.
“I’m determined that we become a criminal justice service, not a criminal justice system, which smacks of process. And it should have public confidence because it engages with the public, and the public should know what it does,” he explains.
But is it odd that a lawyer who has represented prisoners on death row all around the world and puts human rights at the centre of his legal thinking should now be head of the prosecution service? According to Starmer, no.
“A criminal justice service, underpinned by the rule of law and respect for human rights,” he insists, “is at the heart of modern democracy.”