In my previous piece about Sir Keir Starmer, who stepped down as head of the Crown Prosecution Service last year, I suggested he would probably return to life as a leading barrister, able to enjoy a life away from public policy. How wrong I was. Not only has Starmer been appointed to Labour’s new Victims’ Taskforce to draft proposals for a ‘victim’s law’, but rumour has it that he is considering standing for election as a Labour MP.
We should really have seen this coming. Starmer spent his time as director of public prosecutions (DPP) advancing a model of ‘victim-centred justice’, which has been championed by Labour since the 1990s. While Starmer may like to take some credit for a justice system which is more ‘focused on the victim than ever before’, it was Jack Straw, the then home secretary, who in 1999 said that he was ‘determined to put victims at the centre of the criminal-justice system’. Straw claimed the system had become dominated by the ‘defendants’ rights lobby’.
It was Straw’s Labour government that set about repealing many traditional defendants’ rights in the name of protecting the rights of the victim. Perhaps the most significant of these changes was the abolition of the rule on double jeopardy in 2005, which had prevented defendants being tried for the same crime twice. It is no coincidence that another member of the new taskforce is Doreen Lawrence, mother of the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, who fronted the campaign to repeal the ancient rule on double jeopardy. Labour also changed the rules to allow witnesses to give evidence anonymously and behind screens.
Starmer’s period as DPP confirmed that ‘victim-centred justice’ is a euphemism for repealing the traditional rights of defendants. And once you get into the detail of Starmer’s latest proposal, it is clear that his particular brand of reform has the potential to undermine the basis of our justice system.
Writing in the Guardian, Starmer said that the idea of a victim’s law would be to completely change the adversarial nature of our justice system: ‘The idea that if the prosecution and defence attack each other as fiercely as possible the truth will somehow pop out has its attractions, but for particularly young and vulnerable witnesses there are obvious downsides.’ He goes on to suggest a ‘blend’ of ‘adversarial and inquisitorial systems’ before floating the idea that ‘judges should be given the task of questioning young and vulnerable witnesses’. Elsewhere, he reiterated his commitment to making it compulsory for ‘professionals’ to report child abuse and suggested that the initial reporting of sex cases could take place outside of the police station.