He has a very good, intuitive grasp of what human rights is about and has a wide vision for the entire justice system.

Stephen Grosz, head of public law and human rights at solicitors Bindmans LLP, on Keir Starmer QC

Advocate for change

The new Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, will lead the Crown Prosecution Service with equal measures of grit and idealism, says Kate Durcan.

Lawyers don't often top the popularity stakes among professionals, but the new head of the Crown Prosecution Service, Keir Starmer QC, looks set to break the mould. The dashing 46-year-old human rights barrister, one of the youngest in history to be appointed Director of Public Prosecutions, has already achieved more in his career than many a lawyer twice his age, and is known widely for his social conscience, work ethic and down-to-earth persona (he plays amateur league football come rain or shine).

"He is a brilliant lawyer and brilliant in everything he does," describes one leading solicitor. "I know I sound gushing but he really is that good."

Starmer heralds from a generation of ambitious legal stars that include the likes of Helena Kennedy QC and Geoffrey Robertson QC, who together with others established a set of law chambers in 1990, Doughty Street, to provide progressive legal representation for the under-represented. They are known in legal circles as streetwise and maverick.

Starmer has appeared in countless ground-breaking cases in the House of Lords, framing the law in areas such as the treatment of terror suspects, the legality of internment by British troops in Iraq and the admissibility of torture evidence in legal proceedings; his textbook on human rights is considered the bible on the subject and is standard issue amongst the judiciary; and his work in the Caribbean and Africa has led to the abolition of the death penalty in several countries there.

He is staunchly left-wing, which will undoubtedly lead to the same allegations of government-cronyism that so dogged his DPP predecessor, Sir Ken Macdonald, another maverick criminal law barrister who was recruited from the same legal chambers as Cherie Booth QC. But Starmer is different. He has already proved he is no Establishment puppet, with a track record of representing the 'man on the street' not just in criminal cases, but in civil claims against the British Army, the police authorities and the government. He even took on global behemoth McDonalds, representing claimants Helen Steel and David Morris free of charge in their epic battle for the right to free speech in the longest-running civil trial in English legal history.

He is without doubt the trade unions' lawyer. One employment specialist says, "He is passionately committed to human rights and fairness in the workplace. It's a part of him; it is him through and through."

So just how can someone who has dedicated his career as a defender of the people, now turn his hand seamlessly, and with honest conviction, to commanding the nation's prosecutors? After all, as well as his criminal defence practice he is a leader in the field of actions against the police. Just earlier this year he was in the House of Lords representing the family of James Ashley, who was shot dead by Sussex police in 1998.

Stephen Grosz is one of the country's top civil liberties lawyers and head of public law and human rights at leading solicitors' firm, Bindmans LLP. He explains: "One of the things he will be very astute to is what has gone wrong with public prosecutions in the past, and what needs to be addressed. He has a very good, intuitive grasp of what human rights is about and has a wide vision for the entire justice system."

Those who know Starmer well argue that he has taken the job because he believes he 'can make a real difference'. And he is no stranger to batting on the same side as the prosecuting authorities. Since 2003, he has been human rights adviser to the Northern Ireland Policing Board, working closely with the chief constable. He has also provided advice to the Association of Chief Police Officers and Association of Police Authorities, as well as advising the CPS on delicate cases.

He is likely to take a firm rein as DPP, and extend further the work of Macdonald in cultivating greater independence for the CPS and a strong voice for prosecutors in the interests of justice. "He'll do great things, I'm sure. He'll do a wonderful job," concludes a lawyer who knows him well.

Doubters of his suitability for the role should remember the proverb, 'an old poacher makes the best gamekeeper,' but perhaps with less emphasis on the old.

This article is taken from the November 2008 - January 2009 issue of Public Service Magazine