Public persecution

With questions being raised about his suitability as the new DPP, Ken Macdonald could be forgiven for seeing a conspiracy to unseat him before he has even started work

Ken Macdonald QC must have known that in giving up a lucrative criminal-defence practice at the Bar for the post of Director of Public Prosecutions, he could expect a very bad press if he failed to deliver in his new job.

But three months before he officially takes over as head of 7,700 lawyers and caseworkers at the Crown Prosecution Service, he is already being written off for events that took place long ago.

First, he was accused of being one of Tony's cronies because he helped to set up chambers with the Prime Minister's wife.

Then, last month, reports appeared that Macdonald was convicted in 1971, when he was 18, of sending 0.1g of cannabis through the post and was fined £75.

Yesterday he faced further accusations that he held political views critical of the Home Secretary, David Blunkett.

Macdonald could be forgiven for thinking that there is a conspiracy afoot to unseat him before he has even started work at CPS headquarters in the City.

Certainly the attacks have been unrelenting and well placed. But so far no one has spelt out how any of this makes Macdonald a bad prosecutor. Instead it seems that certain sections of Westminster and the conservative Bar resent the prospect of a lawyer with liberal credentials from having responsibility for all prosecutions in England and Wales. The implication being that only reactionaries who believe in the "hang 'em high" philosophy of criminal justice make good prosecutors. But there has been nothing to suggest that any of Macdonald's predecessors subscribed to this point of view. The DPP, like all the lawyers working at the CPS, must follow strictly the CPS code that stipulates cases can only be brought if there is sufficient evidence and that they are in the public interest.

It is also perhaps worth noting that many of the CPS's most recent woes can be attributed to over-vigorous prosecution rather than a softly-softly approach. The collapsed cases against TV presenter John Leslie and royal butler Paul Burrell illustrate the wisdom of adopting more careful and considered prosecution strategies.

Yesterday's report that Macdonald told MPs in July that he believed part of the Home Secretary's plans for penal reform were "grotesque" stirred up some predictable right-wing rhetoric. Ann Widdecombe, a former Home Office minister, responded: "It is extraordinary that someone who is criticising the Home Secretary in this way has accepted an appointment and will have to implement the policies."

The Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith QC, who has ministerial responsibility for the DPP, was quick to point out that Macdonald made these comments before being appointed to the new post and gave them on behalf of the Criminal Bar Association, of which he was chairman.

Lord Goldsmith's spokesman said: "Ken Macdonald is a strong advocate of reform of the criminal justice system (CJS) to ensure better service in public and that the system does what it is there for - to bring guilty defendants to justice. His background in defence gives him an intimate understanding of the CJS and excellent insight into the problems facing the prosecution." She added: "Of course, in the past he has put forward the views of his association, now as a civil servant he is absolutely committed to effectively implementing legislative changes once government has taken a decision."

Bar chairman Matthias Kelly QC has already given his backing to the appointment of Ken Macdonald. "Ken is nothing short of a superb appointment as the Director of Public Prosecutions," he says.

"It is good news for the Crown Prosecution Service that someone of his energy and vision has been appointed to lead this vital public service organisation at such a crucial time for the justice system. Ken is a man of total integrity who will undertake his duties without fear or favour."

Mr Kelly adds: "The cheap attempts to question his suitability are everything to do with the fact that he happens to practise in the same chambers as the Prime Minister's wife; he is therefore seen as yet another way of 'having a go' at the Blairs. This is stupid and irrelevant to the real issues of justice in society, which we must now all address together."

The past few years have shown that the job of DPP is one of the toughest in public service. Macdonald will not only have to contend with criticism for the handling of thousands of cases each year but also for the conduct and well-being of all his staff.

An independent investigation recently found the CPS to be institutionally racist, while an internal report has shown that a high number of lawyers have suffered from stress. These are the real issues facing the DPP - and the ones on which he will be judged.

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