David Calvert-Smith:The QC who dared to be DPP

David Calvert-Smith QC is risking all to become the new Director of Public Prosecutions. John Malpas finds out whether Michael Beloff QC's one-time fag is cut out for the toughest job in the profession.

Everyone at the criminal Bar is asking the same question: What on earth prompted David Calvert-Smith QC to take on the role of Director of Public Prosecutions?

Here is a man, they are saying, whose progress to the top of his profession could not have been more steady or predictable.

But, earlier this month, he turned his back on a guaranteed income of at least £300,000 a year for the rest of his career as a top criminal silk, to take the toughest legal job there is – and all for a paltry salary of £116,000.

"I really do fear for him… it's a hell of a job to take on," sighs one close colleague.

His appointment is certainly extremely popular at the Bar. But it is hardly surprising that barristers like and respect Calvert-Smith. He is as close as you can get to a personification of the Bar itself.

He won a scholarship to Eton – and became Michael Beloff QC's fag. While there he earned the respectable but dull nickname of "Calvers". He went on to Cambridge, before joining the premier criminal set Queen Elizabeth Building in 1969. He has remained there ever since.

As a young criminal barrister at such a prestigious set, he had few problems developing his practice. Then, in 1986, he committed himself to spending the middle period of his career as a prosecutor when he accepted an appointment as a junior treasury counsel.

At the Old Bailey he moved steadily up the ranks, reaching the peak in 1995 when he was appointed to the top criminal prosecuting job – First Senior Treasury Counsel.

Calvert-Smith has handled his fair share of high-profile cases, including the successful prosecution of the Israeli embassy bombers.

But he twice failed to secure a conviction in his most high-profile case, the prosecution of Bruce Grobbelaar for match fixing, described by The Sun as "the trial of the century".

It seemed fitting that this keen sportsman, who still plays five-a-side for his chambers, landed the job of prosecuting Grobbelaar, John Fashanu and Hans Segers. Beloff remembers him as the "quintessential blue-eyed English school boy who could turn his hand to any sport".

He won plaudits from the media for his humour and attention to detail during the trial and the subsequent retrial, and his many supporters at the Bar do not blame him for losing the case.

In his defence they argue that it is notoriously difficult to convince juries to convict leading personalities.

But Desmond De Silva QC, Hans Segers' defence counsel, says that as a gentleman prosecutor from the old school, Calvert-Smith does not go in for the kill, although he does describe him as extremely thorough and very fair.

Like any ambitious barrister, Calvert-Smith enjoyed a successful parallel career, doing his obligatory time at the Bar Council.

He sat on the Bar Council's legal aid and fees committee for a large chunk of the 1990s. His principle legacy is the fixed fee "graduated fees scheme" introduced by the Lord Chancellor's Department in the mid-1990s.

He was the Bar Council's chief negotiator and won a remarkably good deal for the Bar.

This background, combined with his experience as a prosecutor, makes Calvert-Smith an excellent candidate on paper for the DPP post.

His colleagues also believe that his calm, measured, companionable persona will suit the post.

"Barbara Mills was seen as a bossy matron, while he will be much better at getting people within the service on his side," says one colleague. "Quite frankly," he adds, "he is also brighter than her."

Ask anyone who knows Calvert-Smith to describe his character and adjectives such as "likeable", "decent" and "easy to get on with" crop up time after time.

But so do words such as "principled", "tough" and "intellectually honest".

At the press conference he held when his appointment was announced, he described himself as a "close friend" of Barbara Mills.

But that friendship did not stop him from being one of the CPS's harshest critics during her tenure as DPP.

Although criminal barristers grew increasingly critical of the CPS during Mills' period as DPP, few were prepared to go on the record for fear of losing work.

Calvert-Smith, however, was quite happy to go public – most tellingly in November 1996, when he lent credibility to a highly critical BBC documentary on the CPS. He appeared on the programme to complain that the service was underfunded.

Now, of course, this chicken, and several others, including his opposition to extended rights of audience for CPS staff, will come home to roost.

At his recent press conference Calvert-Smith acknowledged that there was both a morale problem within the service and that it was weighed down by bureaucracy – two things Barbara Mills stubbornly refused to admit.

He pledged to raise morale by allowing prosecutors to spend more time prosecuting. He also said he would eliminate the disparity between prosecuting and defence counsel fees.

He did, however, indicate that he was willing to compromise on rights of audience.

"As a 29-year call barrister, I have been instinctively against the idea. I have always seen things through the eyes of a barrister. I have been a barrister for so long and have only had my own interests to serve," he said.

Calvert-Smith's willingness to examine the issue of rights of audience again with an open mind will be good enough for the CPS prosecutors who support his appointment and are willing him to succeed.

If the experience in office of Dame Barbara Mills QC is anything to go by, he will emerge, after a torrid five years in the post, with his reputation in tatters.

Then again, if his track record at the Bar is anything to go by, he will take his new job in his stride and quietly turn around the future of the Crown Prossecution Service.

The second scenario is not as far-fetched as it seems. Some observers believe the CPS is in such a dangerous state that the only way is up.

The retired Court of Appeal judge Sir Iain Glidewell has also done much of Calvert-Smith's work for him by drawing up a detailed blueprint for changing the service which nearly everybody supports.

Crucially, an experienced administrator, Mark Addison, has already taken up the post of chief executive. He will take much of the administrative burden of running the CPS off Calvert-Smith's shoulders.

"I did not apply for the job. It seemed far too difficult for a barrister to do," Calvert-Smith conceded at the press conference. "But, having read the Glidewell report over the summer, I think there is a job there for me to do. I am going to concentrate most of my energy on casework decisions – the old DPP work."

Peter Birts QC, a former Bar Council colleague of Calvert-Smith, is not alone in believing that the CPS got into a mess because Mills tried to do too much.

"He won't be bothered with the administration, which means he should be able to make some decent legal decisions," he says confidently.

It sounds like Calvers might be on to a good thing after all.