Keir Starmer was called to the Bar in 1987 and appointed Queen’s Counsel in 2002. He practised from Doughty Street Chambers since its inception in 1990 and was appointed Head of Chambers in 2007. His main areas of practice were human rights, international law, judicial review, extradition, criminal law, police law and media law.
He was named as QC of the Year in the field of human rights and public law in 2007 by the Chambers & Partners directory and in 2005 he won the Bar Council’s Sydney Elland Goldsmith award for his outstanding contribution to pro bono work in challenging the death penalty throughout the Caribbean and also in Uganda, Kenya and Malawi. From 2003–08, Starmer was the human rights adviser to the Policing Board in Northern Ireland. He took up his appointment as the Director of Public Prosecutions and Head of the Crown Prosecution Service in November 2008.
Keir Starmer QC now goes by the name of “The Director”. At least that’s how the Crown Prosecution Service employee outside his office refers to him as she asks a colleague whether their new boss is ready to start our interview—the first he’s agreed to since taking over as Director of Public Prosecutions in November 2008. It’s a strikingly formal new identity for this pioneering human rights barrister, described by Jonathan Cooper, his former colleague at Doughty Street Chambers, as “probably the first high-level human rights activist to attain the upper reaches of government in this jurisdiction”.
Indeed, Starmer’s CV does contain a prolific mix of top-level advocacy and committed campaign work. Principally this has taken place in the courtroom. In the British courts and Strasbourg, Starmer has successfully challenged the Government in a number of landmark human rights cases, on issues such as the admissibility of torture evidence and the control order regime for terrorist suspects. Further afield, in the Caribbean, he has helped to bring about the elimination of the mandatory death penalty through strategic litigation in domestic courts and the Privy Council. In the academic sphere, too, he has proven influential, contributing to several publications on human rights and civil liberties, including the authoritative European Human Rights Law, and working for many years on studies which helped underpin the incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights into UK law.
But there is another side to the new DPP. Cooper refers to the “strong statist tradition” which underpins Starmer’s thinking, his belief in “the effective use of the criminal justice system to provide for an effective state”. In the past few years, Starmer has advised both the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Association of Chief Police Officers. And, as I’m ushered into his office, it becomes soon becomes apparent that Starmer, while acknowledging the shift in professional context, sees a strong continuity between his previous work in private practice and his new, very public role. “Moving from being self-employed to heading an organisation of over 8,000 employees is clearly a significant change of lifestyle,” Starmer says, with a touch of understatement. “And inevitably it’s challenging. But that’s why I took it on.
“I was attracted to the idea that the CPS is in a process of really significant transformation, from a basic instructing solicitor’s function to a really modern prosecuting service. An effective and fair prosecutor is fundamental in a democratic society and integral to the respect for and protection of human rights that I’ve devoted my career to. That was the context in which I wanted to lead the CPS.”
And, after barely eight weeks in post, Starmer’s expectations of a job high in constitutional moment have already been fulfilled. With the Damian Green and Daniel James cases landing on his desk in the early days of his tenure, he has been called upon to make prosecutorial decisions which test the limits of the criminal justice system’s role in both the democratic process and human rights protection.
At the time of going to press, the question of any possible prosecution of the shadow immigration minister remained unresolved and under consideration by the DPP himself (although the CPS has confirmed that the police gave him only 10 minutes’ warning of the controversial arrest). In the James case, though, Starmer’s decision not to prosecute the family of the paralysed 23-year-old rugby player has already been closely scrutinised. Indeed, for the DPP, the detailed nature of the reasoning which he published on the CPS website was “as significant as the decision itself, because it signals a transparency which I hope will be the hallmark of the CPS. The Service has to got to engage with the community it serves: that’s about an open relationship with the media and explaining our decisions”.
If engagement is to be a watchword for Starmer’s CPS, then it is not just the public at large who will be hanging on what the new DPP has to say. The self-employed criminal Bar, barracked by funding pressures on almost all fronts, has watched with concern as the CPS under Sir Ken Macdonald allocated ever-increasing piles of advocacy work in-house. Starmer is unapologetic about his own desire to embed this policy, citing the budgetary benefits, improvements in charging decisions and enhanced institutional self-confidence likely to accrue to the CPS as a result. But he is also aware of the wide-ranging consequences of such a strategy, and in particular the “deep anxiety at the Bar that if the CPS does its own advocacy there will be less for the self-employed Bar.”
In response, the DPP recognises that it is “important to be open with the junior Bar about how the future might look, rather than simply insisting on going back five, 10, 15 years.” He foresees a radical shake-up to the way criminal barristers organise their careers. Faced by the growth in in-house prosecuting work, young advocates may have to become more peripatetic than is currently the case. In terms reminiscent of his predecessor, Starmer talks of barristers developing an “advocacy portfolio”, which may increasingly see them start off as in-house prosecutors at the CPS before branching out into self-employed practice after a few years.
“The Bar notoriously put off individuals from less advantaged backgrounds who don’t want to take on huge debt,” he says. “What this model offers is an opportunity to have access to a good volume of advocacy work on a salary, before moving after, say, five years or so to the self-employed Bar.”
Common standards for both employed and self-employed barristers should, according to the DPP, play an important part in this process. While there is no immediate prospect of joint schemes being applied to prosecuting counsel, in-house advocates and solicitor-advocates, Starmer hopes that the roll-out from next April of the new CPS quality assurance scheme, currently being piloted, may prove to be a first step. “I want to ensure that our scheme will always be compatible with a joint scheme, so that there are real similarities in the threshold tests,” Starmer says. “But it doesn’t just depend on us. The speed with which the other bodies—the LSC, the Bar Council, the Law Society—allow their schemes to be assimilated is not in my gift.”
There are, of course, objections to Starmer’s “portfolio” approach. While the new Chairman of the Bar, Desmond Browne QC, has shown tentative support for a common grading system, he has also noted that the traffic between the self-employed Bar and the CPS currently runs just one way: Higher Court Advocate (HCA) posts in the CPS proliferate, while work at the lower end of the self-employed Bar is drying up. And with this greater emphasis on prosecution work in the hands of state employees, it may be that the valuable independence provided by self-employed counsel will be lost.
As might be expected of a barrister who cut his teeth on criminal defence work, Starmer is sympathetic to Browne’s concern for the survival of a system in which prosecutors have experience as self-employed counsel. He talks of the possibility of secondments in both directions between the CPS and the self-employed Bar, stressing that “it is unhealthy for barristers simply to be in-house advocates all their lives: you are more likely to be a better prosecution advocate if you’ve done some defence work, and vice versa”. But he is unwilling to provide any numerical clues as to how Crown court advocacy work might be allocated between HCAs and counsel: “The CPS has to provide a first-class prosecuting service within budget—that is what determines the allocation of places: percentages or figures are secondary to that.”
And he is resistant to the tenor of Browne’s comment, made during his inaugural Bar Council address in December 2008, that “the ever expanding monolith of a state prosecutor” may have detrimental consequences for the independence of the prosecuting service—or at least the perceptions of its independence. “I don’t accept the force of that argument,” he says. “We have constantly to exercise independent judgment, to remind ourselves to act independently and not get drawn in by the demands of others at every stage: when we’re advising the police, when we’re charging, when we’re preparing cases. Advocacy is the fourth stage of that process, in which we have to act with the same independence and integrity.”
Starmer is similarly dismissive about claims from the Bar that inexperienced HCAs have been providing sub-standard representation in court, calling the complaints “anecdotal” and observing that such failings can be found distributed among both self-employed and employed barristers. While keen to extend the reach of the quality assurance scheme across the CPS, he is clear that such standard-setting is not a response to criticism from the Bar, but simply “how a responsible public authority should be acting”.
The message, then, from the DPP as he completes his second month in office, is primarily one of continuity, of ongoing reform along the course mapped out by his predecessor. “I only accepted the post because I was aligned with the direction of travel that Sir Ken Macdonald had set,” he says. “I see my role as taking that to the next stage, to deliver the world-class prosecution service we aspire to within five years.”
It’s a task in which Starmer will doubtless faces major institutional challenges. While the CPS which he inherits is widely viewed as having come of age under Sir Ken, lingering questions remain about its organisational strength. An audit by the CPS Inspectorate last year was critical of the state of its case files, while concern has been expressed in internal surveys and press reports about the ability of Associate Prosecutors to conduct trials adequately in the magistrates’ courts.
But Starmer is unfazed by any such doubts. After two months in office, he has been “particularly struck by the professionalism” of his organisation, which has become a highly sought-after employer among law graduates and which, through the introduction of statutory charging, has presided over a marked reduction in the numbers of discontinued trials and an increase the proportion of guilty pleas.
World class service
And, although these are early days for the new DPP, he is not lacking in ambition. Significantly Starmer sees the CPS as a “world class prosecution service” by the end of his first term in office, where his predecessor tended to talk more modestly of a “credible national institution”. To this end, Starmer has committed himself to a rigorous period of research and policy formation which will form the backbone of his strategy as DPP.
“Over the next three months I am dedicating myself to an intensive piece of work visiting each of the 42 CPS areas, identifying strengths and weaknesses through discussions with staff and others. This will be followed up with a series of eight high-level seminars to walk through the criminal justice system.
“What I envisage at the end of that process is that we’ll draw together a pretty clear road-map for the CPS over the next five years, containing the nuts and bolts of our work: from our community engagement before we make a charging decision, to how we work with the police, and onwards through the entire process.”
The DPP’s root-and-branch review is likely to impact upon many areas of the CPS’s operations. Jonathan Cooper, who witnessed Starmer’s brief stint as joint head of chambers at Doughty Street, testifies to his transformative approach. “Keir is measured and thoughtful and doesn’t shoot from the hip,” Cooper says, “but he brings about change. With the death penalty in the Caribbean, he could see what the problem was and worked incredibly hard to devise a strategy to dismantle it. I anticipate that he will address the prosecution service in the same way, taking a practical, standard-setting approach towards fairer and safer prosecutions. “He is a catalyst: he brings about high-energy, dramatic change while remaining, himself, unchanged in the process.”
It may well be, then, that we will see a fundamental congruity between Keir Starmer the human rights activist and Keir Starmer the Director. Except, that is, in one important respect. For almost simultaneously with the announcement of Starmer’s appointment last July came the news that his wife had given birth to the couple’s first child. The new DPP breaks into a smile as he considers how this particular event at least has altered his working life.
“After what is often a hectic and stressful day,” he says, “to come home to a young child who will smile at you whatever happens is a fantastic reminder of what it actually means to be a human being.”
Ben Silverstone is a journalist and law student