Local attorneys: New UK PM a champion for human rights

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Britain’s Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer gives a speech during a visit to the Caledonian Gladiators Stadium in East Kilbride, Scotland, Wednesday July 3, 2024, while on the General Election campaign trail. – AP

NEWLY-ELECTED British Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer, KC, has been hailed as a champion of human rights in the Caribbean region by several members of the local law fraternity, with which Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions (DPP) in the UK, has strong ties.

Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, became prime minister after the UK general election on July 4. He takes over from Rishi Sunak, who stepped down as prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party after a massive defeat that saw his party, also known as the Tories, lose over 200 parliamentary seats. Labour made a corresponding gain.

A strong connection with Trinidad and Tobago

Rajiv Persad, head of Allum Chambers in Port of Spain, said he has known Starmer for over 25 years. He described Starmer as a passionate lawyer who enjoyed criminal law from both the defence and prosecution sides.

“My first case with him was in 1997, where we represented a housewife in Trinidad and Tobago charged for murder. Her name was Ann-Marie Boodram. Keir and the chamber were able to persuade the Privy Council that this woman suffered a miscarriage of justice, having been convicted of murder,” he said. “I was a young lawyer – I must have been out about two or three years. So as a young lawyer, getting to be exposed to these people, it was a great opportunity.”

Starmer worked closely with Allum Chambers, being based there whenever he was in Trinidad and Tobago. Persad said he was well regarded in the Privy Council for his work in human rights in the late 90s and early 2000s, particularly in challenging the mandatory death sentence.

Starmer gave his services pro bono in several regional cases involving the death penalty. One of the more notable ones was the 2004 Barbados case of Lennox Boyce and Jeffrey Joseph v the Queen. The Privy Council held that the mandatory death penalty was protected by the “savings clause” in the country’s Constitution.

Thanks to the work of Starmer and a team of lawyers representing people facing hanging, the Board of the Privy Council ruled that the mandatory death penalty constituted inhuman or degrading treatment. But it maintained that it was Parliament’s responsibility to get rid of a mandatory death penalty, not the courts’.

Douglas Mendes, SC, who also worked with Starmer on the anti-death-penalty cases, also described him as an attorney of the highest calibre and devoted to human rights.

“The fact that he was doing human-rights work pro bono in the Caribbean would give you an idea of his outlook. He was willing to spend the time to ensure the rights given in the Constitution are upheld.”

Mendes added that the fact Starmer worked mostly on death-penalty cases, ensuring human rights were afforded to people whom the rest of society had rejected, also showed his devotion to the cause.

Starmer was also involved in other high-profile cases. Persad said he led Allum Chambers and other attorneys in one of the many matters involving businessmen Ish Galbaransingh and Steve Ferguson and the Piarco Airport corruption issue, representing the two in extradition matters.

“He has had a really long history with TT,” Persad said.

Teaching human rights

Newsday understands Starmer addressed the Hugh Wooding Law School in 2011. At that time, he was Britain’s DPP. He told law students a prosecutor has a broader role as an official of the law court than simply being an advocate for the state. He said they had the role of advising the police, ensuring evidence is lawful, ensuring a fair trial and upholding the rights of victims and witnesses.

Persad said even long before 2011, Starmer came to Trinidad and Tobago and the wider region to train Caribbean lawyers on the death penalty and fair-trial rights. He even imparted knowledge to members of the Privy Council on human rights.

He also lectured the Criminal Bar Association at the Hall of Justice, discussing the topic: “Must the prosecution of criminal cases be at the expense of human rights?”

He told lawyers at that seminar there needed to be a balance between respecting human rights and prosecuting offenders.

As DPP in the UK, Starmer also worked closely with the government and the Trinidad and Tobago DPP, through the British High Commission, to help provide support and expertise in the prosecution of cases in Trinidad and Tobago.

“His position was that legal process had to be done with the constitution of whatever country you were dealing with,” Persad said.

A measured leader

Both Persad and Mendes lauded Starmer’s measured and analytical approach to decision-making, which, they said, would make for a good leader.

“The fact that he is such an experienced lawyer, you can expect that he would adopt a very analytical approach to any problem he would have to deal with and work out all the arguments for and against and make the best decision,” Mendes said.

“One of the things I have always admired about Keir was his measured, proportionate approach to dealing with issues,” Persad added. “He has this ability to look at an issue and examine it and try to make the fairest decision in his view. That, I think, is always something that you want in a leader.”

Mendes also suggested his history as a human-rights lawyer may influence Starmer’s approach to foreign policy. He said it would influence his approach to the promotion of human rights in Britain and his approach to foreign policy.

“It’s being reflected in the things he is saying,” Mendes added. “He is obviously on the side of the marginalised; he is obviously concerned about ordinary working people and how their lives are being affected, and what government can do for them.”

Starmer himself comes from a working-class background.

In his inaugural speech, he told the British population: “Whether you voted Labour or not – in fact especially if you did not – I say to you, directly: My government will serve you….

“Politics can be a force for good,” he said.

“We have changed the Labour Party and brought it back to service. And that is how we will govern. Country first, party second.”

He said a change in Britain would require politicians focused on public service, stability and moderation.

“For too long now, we have turned a blind eye as millions slid into greater insecurity…I want to say very clearly to those people – not this time.”

“Changing a country is not like flicking a switch,” he added. “The world is now a more volatile place. This will take a while. But have no doubt that the work of change begins – immediately.”

Praise from UNC leader

In a media release on July 5, Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar, SC, congratulated Starmer on becoming the 58th British prime minister. She recalled working with him in his role as UK DPP.

“Having shared a very cordial professional relationship with Starmer, I can say with utmost confidence that the new tasks of his premiership will undoubtedly be aided by his long experience as a barrister specialising in human rights issues, his dynamic public service leading the Crown Prosecution Service as DPP and his people-centred representation of the constituency of Holborn and St Pancras.

“Truly, Sir Keir’s impressive track record of legal expertise, combined with his humility, his unmatched spirit of public service and commendable instinct to assist all persons and countries the world over to achieve their social and legal strengths, sets the platform for a premiership that promises to not only deliver holistic, progressive development for the UK but the world as a whole.”