Dame Barbara Mills: Barrister who became the first female Director of Public Prosecutions

Barbara Mills was the first and so far the only woman to have reached one of Britain's most powerful judicial posts, that of Director of Public Prosecutions, and she was widely seen as a pioneer for women in the distinctly male-dominated world of the judiciary. However, her tenure saw its fair share of controversy, and Mills herself was attacked for being overbearing, bureaucratic and lacking a positive management style.

Mills was appointed in 1992 after her predecessor, Sir Allan Green, was allegedly spotted kerb-crawling in the red-light district of King's Cross in London. Although her six-year reign got off to a sound start, with her trying to get to grips with and ultimately taking full responsibility for the Crown Prosecution Service, Mills found herself under much scrutiny.

She came under mounting pressure following criticism by the High Court for failing to bring prosecutions over alleged violence by former members of the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad, and the deaths of two suspects in police custody in London, both in 1994. This was followed by a damning report on the CPS by a former judge, Sir Iain Glidewell, who set out 75 recommendations and identified a number of deficiencies, the most damning being that, even after months of investigation, many prosecution files were so poorly prepared that judges threw the cases out. Mills resigned in 1998, with a government-backed reorganisation on the horizon, but always maintained that she was "not resigning" and "was not pushed" and that the new changes would go on "well beyond the expiry of my contract".

The daughter of a veterinary surgeon, John Warnock, and his wife Kitty, Barbara Jean Lyon Warnock was born in London in 1940. She was educated at St Helen's School, Northwood, Middlesex, where she was head girl, before winning a Gibbs Open University Scholarship to read Jurisprudence at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. She was called to the Bar, joining the Middle Temple in 1963, and gave birth to her first child weeks after sitting her Bar finals. She then joined Edward Cussens' chambers, where she carved out a successful career, becoming Junior Treasury Counsel at the Central Criminal Court (1981-86), then a year later a recorder of the Crown Court (1982-92) before taking silk in 1986.

Mills was a high-profile QC and as a junior had a mixture of civil and criminal cases, including the defence of a man accused of sending wreaths and a deadly African yellow spider to his girlfriend's mother, who had objected to him. More often than not, however, Mills appeared for the Crown, and in 1992 prosecuted Michael Fagan, who was accused of breaking into the Queen's bedroom at Buckingham Palace, having a 10-minute chat with the Queen and stealing a bottle of wine; she was also involved in the Brighton bombing trial of 1986, and that of the four Guinness directors accused of involvement in a conspiracy to drive up the price of shares in the company during a £2.6bn takeover battle for the drinks firm Distillers in 1986. After a 112-day case all were convicted in 1990.

One of Mills' highest-profile cases was in 1987 when she unsuccessfully defended Winston Silcott, initially convicted of murdering PC Keith Blakelock during rioting on the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham, north London, two years earlier. His conviction was later quashed after forensic tests suggested that his confession had been fabricated. Later, as DPP, Mills prosecuted two officers for fabricating evidence and perverting the course of justice in the Silcott case, only to see them acquitted in 1994.

Shortly after the Guinness trial, in September 1990, Mills became Director of the Serious Fraud Office, where she oversaw a number of well-publicised investigations into such cases as Barlow Clowes' £17m investment fraud, the Bank of Credit and Commerce International's £800m-plus fraud and Polly Peck's £1.3bn debt following its collapse and the disappearance of its owner, Asil Nadir, owing £34m.

The SFO was created in 1988 to combine lawyers, specialist accountants and police under one roof, but it quickly attracted controversy, particularly during Mills' reign, due to its inability to secure guilty verdicts in such complicated cases. These often took years to investigate and dealt in areas of the City and accounting practice in which the boundaries of right and wrong had become somewhat distorted. Investigations such as those into the collapsed BCCI were thwarted by impenetrable offshore accounts. It was soon being described as the "seriously flawed office" by the media, as well as in some quarters of the judicial system.

In 1991-92 the SFO suffered another blow with the Blue Arrow fraud trial, the second-longest criminal case in English legal history, which ran up a bill of £40m of taxpayers' money, and was described by the Court of Appeal as a "costly disaster". The case saw 11 defendants accused of conspiring to conceal the under-subscription of the 1987 Blue Arrow rights issue; all were acquitted. Despite criticism, the SFO was praised for highlighting the inadequacies and inconsistencies of financial regulation, which often created the loopholes through which the SFO's suspects fled. However, further disparagement continued.

After 18 months, Mills took up her post as DPP and Head of the CPS in April 1992. Further criticism was voiced when the CPS controversially dropped the case against five white youths arrested for the alleged murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence in South-east London in 1993. The then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, ordered a judicial inquiry into the killing at the end of July 1997. The inquiry ended with the publication of the Macpherson Report in February 1999, which concluded that the Metropolitan Police force was guilty of "institutional racism". The 333-page report listed a catalogue of errors in the investigation, including inadequate searches, botched identity parades and a patronising attitude by officers towards Lawrence's parents, Neville and Doreen.

Glidewell's official 1998 report portrayed the CPS as sinking under its own bureaucratic weight and described it as having "systematic inefficiency" and "a culture of mismanagement". The overall impression was that under Mills the CPS had gone "soft" on crime and criminals, particularly with the increase in crime and the fall in prosecutions. Naturally enough, Mills rejected such claims.

After her departure as DPP, the Chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, Sergeant Mike Bennett, who described the CPS as the "Criminal Protection Society", was stinging, saying, "I'm pleased she's gone – she should have gone a long time ago... She would never listen to her critics. She increased the bureaucracy and never, in my opinion, fought for the CPS – as its leader she should have."

Mills was then appointed Adjudicator for the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise, in April 1999, dealing with complaints from the public. The bodies merged in 2005, and she held the position until 2009, after which she became chairman of the Professional Oversight Board established in support of the Financial Reporting Council. She was also a member of the Competition Commission. She was appointed DBE in 1997.

In January 1993, Mills appeared on Desert Island Discs; her choices including Elvis Presley's "Blue Suede Shoes" – and Edith Piaf singing "Non, je ne regrette rien".

Barbara Jean Lyon Warnock, lawyer; born London 10 August 1940; called to the Bar, Middle Temple 1963, Bencher 1990; Junior Treasury Counsel, Central Criminal Court 1981–86; a Recorder 1982–92; Director, Serious Fraud Office 1990–92; Director of Public Prosecutions 1992–98; The Adjudicator, 1999–2009; Chairman, Professional Oversight Board 2008–; QC 1986; DBE 1997; married 1962 John Mills (three daughters, one son); died London 28 May 2011.