Riots, hacking and MPs’ expenses present a daunting case file but the Director of Public Prosecutions is unbowed, says Mary Riddell.
Just before dawn, on a day when he should have embarked on a family holiday in the Swiss Alps, Keir Starmer sat in an austere north London courtroom watching a procession of trainer-looters face justice.
If not the most glamorous assignment for a Director of Public Prosecutions, this rated as one of Mr Starmer’s better moments. He left content that his prosecutors had “stepped up to the plate. We showed we could actually deal with reasonably simple cases very swiftly.”
Neither simplicity nor speed has been the hallmark of one of the stormiest tenures faced by a DPP. As he puts it: “There’s been an extraordinary run of cases involving Parliament or those close to it. Assisted suicide, MPs’ expenses, phone hacking, with Stephen Lawrence and Milly Dowler thrown in as tricky [challenges] along the way.”
Even the riots were hardly an example of smooth justice. While Mr Starmer is eager to praise his prosecutors, he makes clear that sentencing is another matter. His predecessor, Lord Macdonald, has complained of a lack of “humanity or justice” while the head of prison governors has spoken of a “feeding frenzy”.
Mr Starmer will reserve his thoughts for the Sentencing Council, on which he sits. In the meantime, he expects “a number of appeals” resulting in “an agreed set of guidelines, from probably the Court of Appeal, that indicates what the appropriate sentences should be”.
Such caveats apart, it seems clear that the DPP may be very far from agreeing with the Prime Minister, who encouraged and praised tough riot sentencing. Asked if he favoured any great legal changes on the basis of the riots, he says: “We should not treat these cases as a separate category to be dealt with differently.
“We should treat them as we do any other case. We need to keep our feet on the ground. In other areas, such as big terrorism cases, we have resisted the temptation to call for special measures. With disorder cases, we should adopt the same approach.”
On juvenile justice he sounds particularly cautious. The Home Secretary has asked the CPS to tell prosecutors to seek the waiving, where possible, of the legal anonymity granted to juveniles found guilty of criminal acts. Not, it seems, on Mr Starmer’s watch. He has, he reveals, personally promised Maggie Atkinson, the Children’s Commissioner, that she will be fully involved in developing the guidance requested by Theresa May.
“As for what the Home Secretary has said [about naming children], that’s clearly a matter for her. I have not expressed a view. We have made clear to our prosecutors what the legal position is, and I’ll expect them to apply the law. My view is that the law — which says you don’t name unless it’s in the public interest — has survived the test of time. I’m not advocating a change.”
Mr Starmer has been described as “the fairest man in Britain” and there is even a Keir Starmer Appreciation Society on Facebook. Given his enthusiasm for the Human Rights Act, it seems possible that David Cameron is not a member. Asked about the Prime Minister talking of a link between human rights and the riots, he says: “I don’t think human rights could be listed as one of the causes. No doubt there will be analysis of the possible causes, but to me human rights would not be among them.”
Nor does he believe that it is possible to replace the Human Rights Act with a watered-down Bill of Rights. The terms of reference of the commission established by Mr Cameron to look at bringing in a British Bill “are to build on the European convention. It’s really important to stick to those terms, because they stipulate that there will be no weakening of the HRA.”
So is talk of a feebler Bill of Rights all hot air? “I can’t imagine the commission would recommend that we withdraw from the European Convention or the Council of Europe,” he says.
Nor does he offer much encouragement to Mr Cameron’s plan to change the remit of the European Court of Human Rights. “The court is the supreme body charged with interpreting the European Convention, and it’s got to approach that in a European-wide way.”
Many high-profile cases stack up on the DPP’s desk. The trial of a police officer charged with the killing of Ian Tomlinson, a news vendor, in the G20 riots, is imminent. At first, Mr Starmer said it was impossible to prefer charges, changing his mind only when the evidence altered. Even now, he says that bringing the case was “a very, very, very difficult decision … probably the hardest decision I have had to take”.
Another lonely call looms on Chris Huhne. The Energy Secretary denies that he tried to evade points for speeding but the file has again gone back to Essex Police in a to-and-fro exercise described as “just completely routine and commonplace” by Mr Starmer. “We’re waiting for a bit more material,” he says.
He cannot say when he will personally announce whether a prosecution will go ahead, but he implies that the process is almost over. “We’re waiting for further information. I don’t know quite how long that will take, but we are well advanced.”
Other case files never close. Mr Starmer, as directed by the House of Lords, has produced two sets of guidelines on assisted suicide. Now, however, calls are mounting for terminally ill patients to be able to rely on medical help to end their lives.
“I understand the point of view, but the law is where it is,” Mr Starmer says, warning that his guidelines can be expanded no further. “If there are to be any further developments in this area, Parliament will have to debate it.”
But even though assisting suicide remains illegal, it is not inevitable that compassionate doctors who help their patients will be prosecuted. “There’s nothing automatic under the guidelines. Each case is looked at … on its individual facts. [Being a health professional] is one factor in favour of prosecution, but we weigh the facts in the context of the case. Sooner or later we will get all sorts of challenges, and this may be one.”
Since his first set of guidelines came in, in 2009, there has, he says, been a rise in the number of cases of assisted suicide passed by the police to the CPS. The figures for 2010/11 — showing 18 cases received from the police, of which three were withdrawn and two remain under review — show no significant change from the previous year.
However, a parliamentary question in June 2010 elicited the reply that only three cases had been passed on in 2008/09, a statistic that the CPS says is misleading because no records were kept. Mr Starmer says: “There has not been a huge explosion, but more than before. One reason is that people feel more confident to come forward and explain what they’ve done to others because they have a degree of clarity about what might happen to them.”
Despite facing budget cuts of 25 per cent, this DPP looks neither wearied by nor complacent about the challenges he faces. Logistical tests, such as bringing in digital case files and stopping, through early guilty pleas, the collapse of almost 50 per cent of Crown Court cases, are coupled with human challenges, such as better victim support. Although he deplored the treatment of the Dowler family, his remedies sound unlikely to assuage their outrage over the cross-questioning of Mr Dowler by the QC of his child’s murderer.
“What the Milly Dowler case threw up is that we still need to listen more to victims. But that’s more about support. The defence [must have] the right fearlessly to put its case on behalf of a client. That must remain the rule.”
On phone-hacking, he draws a link with MPs’ expenses. “Both are hugely important steps in our history. The idea of MPs being prosecuted and imprisoned is rare.” As is the notion of journalists being prosecuted and imprisoned? “Exactly. Both cases will be seen as turning points.”
Keir Starmer remains unawed, if not unburdened, by the historic nature of his task. In his impartial book, the small and the bad deserve — and must get — the same standard of scrupulous justice as the great and the good.
Riddell, Mary. (2nd of September, 2011). Keir Starmer interview: still set fair, even in the eye of the storm. The Telegraph. Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/8738638/Keir-Starmer-interview-still-set-fair-even-in-the-eye-of-the-storm.html