Keir Starmer

Director of public prosecutions: stormier after Starmer

Keir Starmer has steered the CPS from years of plenty into the age of austerity. Alison Saunders faces a more turbulent reign.

The idea that a director of public prosecutions might become a publicly recognisable figure with a significant media profile would have struck earlier generations of lawyers as at best bizarre and at worst alarming. Until the last three decades, even the identity of the DPP was not widely known outside the legal profession, so low was the average director's profile. The DPP's post was filled, became vacant, was filled again, with barely a ripple on the surface of public life.

All that changed with the removal of prosecution decisions from the police and the formation of the new Crown Prosecution Service in 1985. Ever since the CPS has existed, the director has had much more extensive administrative and policy guideline responsibilities and has become a much more salient public figure than his (or her – one of the best early DPPs under the new system was the late Barbara Mills) predecessors ever dreamed of being. The two most recent DPPs, Lord Macdonald QCand Keir Starmer QC, have defined the job for the 21st century. They were brave appointments – both men had been schooled as defence barristers specialising in the ever more legally significant field of human rights law. But both have proved excellent, independent and modernising directors. As Mr Starmer prepared to step down at the end of the month, his successor, Alison Saunders, has the proverbial hard act to follow.

In his interview with the Guardian today, Mr Starmer could hardly be clearer that a modern DPP is willy-nilly forced to make prosecution decisions with public and political implications as well as having to arbitrate on some of the most delicate human rights issues that come before the courts. His own in-tray has included assisted suicide, rape, MPs' expenses, phone hacking and middle-class tax evasion. That's not going to change. But the agenda that faces Ms Saunders is also likely to be dominated by the increasing cost and legal pressures on the CPS, within which she has worked for many years.

Cuts of 25% since 2010 have inevitably forced the CPS to make choices about priorities and resources. The service's original 42 regional offices have been cut to 13. Complaints have mushroomed within the legal profession about consequential delays and the quality of the service's more inexperienced counsel. The current attorney-general, Dominic Grieve, has openly speculated that some prosecutions may have to be returned to the police if current resource constraints continue. Mr Starmer has steered the CPS from the years of relative plenty into the years of austerity. Ms Saunders faces a much more turbulent reign.

Editorial (Friday 18 October 2013). Director of public prosecutions: stormier after Starmer. The Guardian. Retrieved from: