Once dubbed the most dangerous woman in Britain, Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights organisation Liberty, talks to Corinne McPartland about defeat on controversial anti-terror proposals
Nervously fiddling with my dictaphone and trying not to think about how increasingly clammy my hands have become, I sit in Shami Chakrabarti’s office waiting to interview her.
I am not ashamed to admit that her reputation as the toughest obstacle to draconian anti-terror measures in the UK has preceded her and I am terrified about our forthcoming encounter.
But looking around the barrister’s office, I am suddenly calmed by the numerous paintings, lovingly created by her young son, she has stuck to her walls and the abundance of framed family photographs which take pride of place on her slightly battered looking desk.
“Right, let’s get this started,” Chakrabarti says very matter-of-factly as she slips into the room.
This is not going to be good, I think, as she fixes me with her piercing kohl-lined eyes.
Looking at her impressive career record you would think that she was born fighting for human rights, but Chakrabarti was not always so broadminded: the 39-year-old used to believe in capital punishment as a youngster. That was until a chance debate with her father about the Yorkshire Ripper sparked her interest in the justice system.
“I was quite affected by an innocent debate with my father during the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper,” explains Chakrabarti.
She told her parents that the serial killer deserved to die for what he had done. Her father then told her to imagine what it would be like to be facing the death penalty for a crime you had not committed.
“He asked me to imagine what it would be like to be approaching the scaffold or the electric chair knowing that you haven’t done anything,” she recalls. “It was a very, very powerful moment for me.”
But that was not the last of the many factors that guided Chakrabarti into studying law. She says throughout her childhood and adolescence she became increasingly interested in the idea of individual justice and the community.
“Growing up I think there were a lot of cultural influences that pulled me towards a career in law, such as reading To Kill A Mockingbird at school and watching 12 Angry Men,” she says, with a half-grin as she, perhaps, fondly remembers those life-changing moments.
Great, I think – she is human.
Chakrabarti comes to life when she starts to talk about subjects that really matter to her and there is an undoubted sense of pride in the way she describes her profession. You almost feel as though you want to stand on your chair, hold your hat to your chest and pledge your life savings to Liberty right there and then.
“While I’ve always been a person who’s interested in society and politics with a small p, ultimately what has mattered to me most is the idea of trying to do what’s right for individual people rather than trying to change the world on a very grand or global scale,” she claims.
This is exactly what makes Chakrabarti different to her counterparts. She does not want to save the world. She is not interested in self-promotion. She would just as gladly put all her energy into standing up for the rights of one wronged individual as she would do leading a major national campaign.
“The rule of law can hold society together and when it’s gone people miss it,” she says. “And I think that even if lawyers work in the City or in a legal aid practice you have certain core values in common and society is better for it.”
When I ask if she ever was lured away from the relatively poorly paid path of human rights to the fat pay cheques of the City, she demonstrates the resolution of Mother Teresa and holds firm to her convictions. She argues that the people who go into human rights will end up being the right people for the job.
“It’s hard working in human rights,” she adds. “You don’t get paid very much money and you won’t work in a fancy building.”
But Chakrabarti insists that just because lawyers who work in human rights get paid much less than those at top City firms, that does not mean that it is a fast-track into a career in law.
“It’s very, very competitive and I think it’s just as difficult to get into a decent legal aid firm with all the cutbacks as it is to get into a top City law firm,” she warns. “So if you’re going to go to all of those efforts, then you have to be pretty sure it’s what you want to do.”
But Chakrabarti is worried that lots of budding lawyers may never get the chance to work in legal aid because of the massive cutbacks being introduced by the Government.
“I think what’s happening to legal aid is appalling – it’s akin to making cutbacks in schools and hospitals, and the reason the Government gets away with it is because they convince people that legal aid is full of fat cat lawyers,” she argues.
However, the collapse of the legal aid system has been the least of Chakrabarti’s worries of late. She has been waiting for the House of Lords to vote on proposals to increase the amount of time a person suspected of a terror offence can be held without charge from 28 days to 42. But 13 October saw a resounding victory for Liberty’s long-running Charge or Release campaign. The House of Lords rejected the Governments proposals by 191 votes (see box).
“I’m glad that they kicked this dangerous, divisive and counterproductive policy into touch,” Chakrabarti says with great conviction.
This is where Chakrabarti suddenly seems to become alive with enthusiasm and passionately describes how terrible it would be if the policy were ever made into law. She points to a massive poster on one of her walls, which charts just how the UK’s current charge-and-release policy is disproportionate to the rest of the worlds.
“It’s’ not necessary to lock up people up for six weeks and not to tell them why,” she says. “It’s so dangerous, not just to them but to the fight for people to pull together against terrorism, particularly in minority communities.”
And Chakrabarti is glad the Government plans to extend an already lengthy period of detention have been stopped. The counter-terrorism bill will now continue its way through Parliament without the 42-day measure.
“The Upper House has demonstrated why Britain is the oldest unbroken democracy on Earth,” she adds. “Common decency says we don’t lock people up for six weeks without charge. Common sense should tell the Government that when you’re in a hole and you’ve lost the argument, stop digging.”
Another of Chakrabarti’s major disputes with the Government has been over ID cards and its plans to introduce them to the UK. She firmly believes there will be a high price to pay in terms of peoples’ freedom and privacy if they are made compulsory.
And she also insists it’s too risky to have all our information stored in one area, especially given the many recent data protection slip-ups by the Government.
“I don’t see why you need one ID card rather than having a range of different forms of ID,” says Chakrabarti. “That way if one is compromised you haven’t lost your whole life and if some data is compromised at least its ringfenced.”
And Chakrabarti is not buying any of the reasoning that has been put out to support the argument for ID cards.
“Some of the overblown claims that they would make us safer from terrorism and help with benefit fraud are ridiculous,” she argues.
It seems as though Chakrabarti has managed to fit a great deal into her first few years as director of Liberty – even sparing time to have a family. She is never more softer looking than when she is talking about her young son and husband, who is a partner at City law firm Herbert Smith.
Chakrabarti clearly loves her job and strongly believes in what she is fighting for, but I get the impression that her family is one of her greatest triumphs. She is a wonderful example to female lawyers who want to get to the top but still want to have a family.
“It helps to have friends and family, and throughout my career I’ve had people around me,” she says. “Especially my husband, who I share the same values and interests with. He’s a very a hands-on dad. Parenting is about partnership: that way its much easier to find that balance of family and work.”
“It is a balance that is hard to find unless your employers are flexible and will allow you to use technology such as a Blackberry or a laptop to work from home,” Chakrabarti adds.
“I think it’s really important that more women start to do well in law because an organisation that doesn’t reflect society is just odd,” she explains. “But it’s really the top ends of law firms that need to see more women succeed the partners and managing partners.”
Buzz – the alarm clock on Chakrabarti’s desk signals the end of our time together. So I ask her if she would be so kind as to answer one last question.
What memorable phrase or saying has helped you along in your career? To which she immediately replies: “I can remember being a law student and Helena Kennedy came along to speak to the undergraduates. She said: We need people with good hearts to come into the legal world, and that really has stuck with me. At the time there was a TV show called LA Law, which portrayed the law as being about fast cars and shoulder pads. Then there was this woman saying that the industry wanted people with good hearts and I remember that.”
With that our meeting was over and I was left grappling with my notepad and handbag outside Liberty’s unassuming offices with Chakrabarti’s last words ringing in my ears.
She was right: above everything else, to be a good lawyer you do need to have a good heart. And, even though I was petrified about meeting her, Shami Chakrabarti certainly has that.