The departing director of public prosecutions has helped transform Britain's legal landscape on often-divisive issues such as assisted suicide, rape and domestic violence. It's hard to do justice to the significance and popularity of Keir Starmer, when any description of his work starts with the word "guidelines" (or, worse, "issuing guidelines"). The activity sounds inherently tedious. But, in fact, it isn't, and besides, he's the departing director of public prosecutions, and that's what they do.
He leaves the role in November after five years ("I always say, it's better to be asked why you're leaving, rather than when you're leaving," he says in a jolly, irrelevant way, since it's a fixed-term post and nobody would ask him anyway). But even though it needs no explanation, it has still come as a shock; I met him straight from a conference at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, where someone very senior called it a "tragedy" to see him leave.
Dominic Grieve, the attorney general, has praised his "sound instinct and humanity". He commands great respect from any charity even fleetingly involved in violence against women. He has the kind of public profile and cross-party admiration that a DPP would have in a Hollywood film (written by a DPP). Clearly, that isn't the work of the Crown Prosecution Service – for people to love it – and it doesn't mean that all his decisions have been met with universal approval. Criticism, however, doesn't worry him."I have determined to just approach each problem as it arises, to give it the legal analysis that is necessary to come to the right decision as we see it, and then to explain ourselves. Therefore I don't spend a lot of time worrying about what the reaction will be."
But he leaves the role having invested it with the qualities he brought – the plainest of which is transparency – and even an individual or body that disagreed with every single guideline would concede the (hopefully lasting) value of his tenure.
The past five years have seen the most combustible legal questions arise, arriving so fast they sometimes seemed to be leapfrogging each other for attention and controversy. At one point, we discuss a decision he made and he starts smiling – I won't say what it was, because he wasn't smiling at it, more with a sort of relief. He's a bit like a man who's come through the first world war and only realised afterwards how dangerous it was.
"We've had our fair share of pretty tricky policy issues," he concurs. "We've had assisted suicide, which had been discussed for many years but came to the fore in the first year or so after I was appointed, because Debbie Purdy succeeded in getting the House of Lords – its last ever decision – to a ruling that there should be guidelines.
"We then had MPs' expenses. Well, that was always going to be big news. We then had hacking, and as a result of all of that, we had the unusual situation of a large number of journalists, or those who interact with journalists, on bail. I think at one stage we had 50 on bail. Until then, I think I'd had one tricky case involving a journalist. Then social media kicked in …" This is before he even mentions what many consider his most significant advances, on rape, domestic violence and sex-selective abortions, of which more shortly.
"Partly these issues have just come up, and partly I've gone out and tried to be more visible, in a sense more accountable, by setting out exactly how we approach things. In the past, it was always thought that it's not sensible to give an idea, in advance, of how you might approach an area. The sense was that you might not be able to deal with the individual case when it came along, or that you might give people too much of a steer. I don't subscribe to that; I think the public are entitled to know how we're going to approach difficult decisions, and then, afterwards, how we did approach it.
"People all said when I came into the job, it's important to be accountable. But how can I be, if I simply give a yes or no decision?" As a result of this, he is confident that people, especially if they take the time to read his workings, will see the justice in the decision he reached.
His assisted suicide guidelines were much more subtle than the understandings that were in place before. Rather than exempt suspects on the basis of their relationship to the victim, the new emphasis was on the motivation of the suspects themselves – drawing a crucial distinction between "compassionate support" and "malicious encouragement". Purdy herself welcomed the guidelines and the assisted suicide ruling characterised the job as Starmer ran it: a determination to consult, as broadly as possible, and be open about the results of that.
"The other thing I tried to do, either through the consultation itself, or with roundtable discussions with experts and interested parties, is to try to reach a consensus. I genuinely think that most people say it's not quite what I would have advocated, but I do accept that it's about in the right place. So far, nobody has criticised the actual decisions we've made, according to the guidelines."
This isn't always straightforward. Take the decision on sex-selective abortion, in which he ruled not to prosecute two doctors who had been had by a media sting operation (two journalists, pretending to be carrying a female foetus, asked two doctors for an abortion on those grounds). "In order to make the sting work, the undercover team asked for an abortion based on gender, but then immediately mixed in other reasons. So in both cases, there was reference to previous failed female pregnancies. Chromosomal defects were referenced. In one of the cases, the doctor was told there was a test in France.
"She said, 'What is this test? And how pregnant were you?' And the journalist said, 'I was in France. I was eight weeks' pregnant.' When the doctor was then arrested, she said, 'I didn't believe her. I don't think there is a test at that point of gestation. I just assumed she was lying and wanted an abortion for some other reason'."
It's a fascinating case – a sex-selective abortion charge would never have stuck because the journalists were just too sloppy, but the CPS could have charged the doctors with not asking enough questions. "Well, obviously, when we got to that stage of the analysis, we called for all available guidance. Because those prosecutions are better if you can say, 'there is a very clearly understood set of professional rules, that everybody knows you must follow, which you did or didn't follow. But the guidance is very limited, and it didn't indicate even how you carry out the assessment."
Obviously, the abortion act has its downsides – I, for one, object to having to pretend to be at risk of mental illness in order to exercise my right not to reproduce – but it was, at least, framed in an era of professional trust. There seems to be more call for legally ratified norms, now, in medicine and beyond, which makes the job of the DPP ever-more charged and powerful.
The policy areas can be divided, I think, into life-and-death questions – assisted suicide, sex-selective abortion – in which the pressure on the CPS is that people seem to want a gladiatorial contest, a final thumbs-up/ thumbs-down decision on behalf of society, on a matter that, in truth, will never be finally decided.
Then there are the areas that are the most obviously political – MPs' expenses. Starmer observes mildly: "We had to approach it quite carefully, because we had in the background issues of parliamentary privilege, what was capable of being investigated in open court. Lots of people were making complaints about MPs, lots of MPs were complaining about each other, lots of constituents were complaining about MPs, so we had to sit down with the police and have a scoping panel, to discuss which of the categories were really worth investigating."
He maintains that no politician has ever sought to influence him, even obliquely, and that he would have left the job if they had. He also maintains his neutrality, although he says "a number of individuals have said that I support the Labour party". It is the only time he hesitates in any sentence.
Possibly the greatest legalistic challenges are the situations thrown up by technologies with which the law simply hasn't kept pace, whether that's freedom of speech on Twitter, or freedom from surveillance by NSA or GCHQ. Without commenting on the Guardian's particular case, he made two points: first, that the extension of possibilities, either for mass surveillance or for journalistic investigation, doesn't alter "the fundamental principles. I think most people accept that it is necessary to have some surveillance in a democratic society. I think most people accept that it's important to have limits and clear safeguards on that."
His second point, relating to journalism, is: "There are potentially many offences that journalists could commit in the course of their business. It would be very unhealthy if you had a situation where a journalist felt that they needed to go to their lawyer before they pursued any lead or asked any question."
Finally, there is the way justice functions for the people whom it serves, which is Starmer's true interest, and defines the sort of lawyer he is, and necessarily the sort of person he is. He leaves the job with the publication this week of a "fundamental new approach" to child sexual abuse cases, in which, by various means – techie notions like "protocols on information sharing between agencies", mingling with profound, trenchant changes in attitude – he hopes entirely to overhaul our understanding of victimhood, and thereby, guilt.
"I'm not sure it's controversial, but I think it is very, very significant. If you look at this historically, for decades, arguably centuries, the criminal justice system was set up as a straight fight between the prosecutor and the defendant. Nobody really even talked about the victim's rights or interests until about 20 years ago. Before that, it was at most, a walk-on part.
"What I think has actually gone on in that 20 years is a lot of good work, we have much more support for victims than we ever had before, but it came with a number of assumptions being made by those who deliver our criminal justice system. We recognised those people as victims, but what we perhaps should have done was to listen a bit more carefully to what they were saying."
Starmer's approach has already made a significant difference to people's readiness to come forward, and I've seen this first-hand: after reading a quote of his in Glamour magazine, a reader wrote in to say she'd walked straight out of the gym, into a police station, to report a rape that had happened 14 years earlier.
But he knows there is much more to be done, "particularly in the field of child sexual abuse, but this is also true in sexual offences more generally, some of the assumptions were about what 'real' victims do: a real victim goes straight to the police; a real victim will give a coherent and consistent account, in chronological order; a real victim would never go back to the perpetrator; a real victim wouldn't dress in a particular way, or drink or take drugs. Over time, those tests or assumptions have ended up ringfencing some of the most vulnerable victims from criminal justice protection."
He has rather a cool manner, the result of which is perhaps that people don't immediately recognise the radicalism of his priorities, which may be how he got the job in the first place. "Now if we say we've got the best criminal justice system in the world – and we do say that very often – we've got to address the question of how is it treating the most vulnerable. My own sense is that if we can get this fundamental shift right, it inevitably influences other areas of the criminal law. This immediately goes into areas of sex offending, of domestic violence. The potential for real change in our criminal justice system is, I think, huge."
It's hard to see what the natural next move is, since the period has been so extraordinary; he will go back to his chambers (Doughty Street), but only for a "short while". "Our five-year-old son thinks I ought to work in the local bookshop, and I can see the appeal of that." It's a lawyer's answer, but then, what a lawyer.
Williams, Zoe. (Friday 18 October 2013). Keir Starmer: 'The potential for change in our criminal justice system is huge'. The Guardian. Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2013/oct/18/keir-starmer-potential-change-criminal-justice