The big interview: Shami Chakrabarti

Shami Chakrabarti says she was surprised that the January 13 announcement of her imminent departure from civil rights charity Liberty attracted so much attention.

Sandwiched between the deaths of singer David Bowie and actor Alan Rickman, the news made the front page of several national newspapers, notably left-leaning duo The Guardian and The Independent.

Chakrabarti, a barrister by training, joined Liberty in 2001 as an in-house counsel and became director in 2003. The intervening years have been a constant battle for human rights and civil liberties against the background of growing efforts by the Government to combat terrorism and extremism.

And with Chakrabarti at the helm, Liberty has brought a raft of challenges to the decisions made by the authorities (see box, below).

“It’s a wonderful job,” says Chakrabarti of the role of Liberty director, which she also describes as an “enormous privilege”.

“Sometimes it’s felt quite a burden but if I hadn’t been doing this I would have been sitting in the pub complaining,” she adds.

Shami Chakrabarti

There is a lot that she could potentially have complained about. Chakrabarti describes recent years in politics as an “authoritarian period” which the UK has yet to recover from, placing the blame firmly at the door of lawyers-turned-politicians such as former Labour prime minister Tony Blair and former Conservative party leader Michael Howard.

“Ultimately it was in this authoritarian period where the powerful became more and more irritated by checks and balances,” she explains. “The law is about protecting the vulnerable from the powerful and it’s about checks and balances. In an authoritarian and to some extent a very greedy age people don’t like the bias of inconvenient truth.”

Liberty has gone into bat for a series of major issues in the last decade. Chakrabarti says it is tough to pick out one case, but she points to the organisation’s campaign against a proposed extension to the number of days someone could be held in custody before being charged as a notably important example. Liberty’s campaign, ‘Charge or Release’ resulted in the proposals eventually being overturned by the House of Lords in October 2008.

“What was important about that is that we defeated government in Parliament, not in the courts,” Chakrabarti adds.

Other campaigns she is particularly proud of include the fight against ‘stop and search’. Liberty brought a case on behalf of two protestors who had been arbitrarily stopped and searched outside a demonstration in 2003. The case took years to reach a resolution, but in 2009 the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg ruled in the protestors’ favour.

“People have a pop at the Strasbourg court, and the institution isn’t perfect, but sometimes it takes a court of Continental judges to remind us in Britain about the importance of things like privacy and the right not to be stopped and searched arbitrarily,” says Chakrabarti.

Human Rights Act

The UK signed the European Convention of Human Rights back in the 1950s when it was introduced, and in 2000 implemented the Human Rights Act to enshrine the convention’s principles into domestic law. But the Human Rights Act has been under attack for the best part of 10 years, with David Cameron first vowing to repeal it when he became Conservative Party leader in 2007.

The vow was repeated in the 2015 general election campaign, when the Tories pledged to replace the Act with a ‘British Bill of Rights’. The promise has been met with an outcry by human rights lawyers and activists and Chakrabarti says it is an “existential challenge to rights and freedoms in the UK”.

She is passionate on this topic, in particular when she speaks about the way that some commentators have called for a limit to “trivial” human rights cases.

“Who decides who’s worthy? What’s a trivial human rights violation?” Chakrabarti asks.

As examples, she cites African-American rights activist Rosa Parks’ refusal to accept segregation in the 1950s. Chakrabarti points out that it might seem trivial to ask someone to move to the back of a bus, but the wider principles at stake were critical.

She also talks about putative cases of elderly patients who receive poor care at the end of their lives; although the poor care might not change the fact someone will die, do they deserve to suffer?

“The government proposals and the fact that they would even play party politics with human rights reveals a pretty frightening contempt for the freedoms that came out of the Holocaust, the Blitz and World War Two,” she continues.

Snooper’s Charter

While it campaigns for the Human Rights Act, Liberty is not taking sides in the forthcoming referendum over the UK’s future in the EU – although it is watching the debate and the possible outcomes with interest. But even as parliament takes sides over the EU, the Government is also trying to push through legislation in an area which has become increasingly important to Liberty and the civil rights movement in the past few years.

The Investigatory Powers Bill is a piece of draft legislation introduced in November. Some have called it the ‘Snoopers’ Charter’ and it would introduce new powers for the security services and authorities such as the police over private communications, including putting a legal obligation on communications providers to assist with the interception of data.

Last year saw Liberty, alongside the likes of Amnesty, bring a challenge to the intelligence services over the use of intercepted data. The case, before the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, resulted in a robust judgment and a report to the Prime Minister.

Liberty is now fighting to reduce some of the more draconian powers which would be introduced in the bill, but Chakrabarti says recent amendments are no more than a “minor injection of Botox”.

“There’s a danger there that that [the Bill] will just go through and be ignored because everyone’s tied up in the referendum,” she warns. “It’s going to take some real attention and effort from parliamentarians across the parties at a time when everyone’s excited about the EU referendum.”

The bill is the latest aspect to what Chakrabarti sees as a continuing battle to uphold the rule of law and the role of lawyers in a modern society.

“I used to tell self-deprecating lawyer jokes, in the way that you do,” she says. “I’m more cautious now because for at least a couple of decades a jibe at lawyers has become something more sinister. It becomes an attack on independent judiciary, an attack on legal aid, an attack on the rule of law itself.”

She criticises the recent Government cuts to legal aid funding, as well as changes to the rules on judicial review which will make bringing a judicial review application more expensive. But attacks on lawyers affect all lawyers, she adds, with challenges to rights and freedoms extending to the corporate boardroom as well as the courtroom.

“Let’s face it, without the law and without access to advocacy and representation people have to resolve their disputes in rather less civil ways,” Chakrabarti adds. “I think the rule of law has been under attack. When law and lawyers are marginalised really bad outcomes can ensue.”

She is also critical of the growing wave of ‘non-platforming’ and restrictions on debate and free speech around the country and particularly in universities, issuing a robust challenge to those who are concerned about giving extremists a soapbox to air their views.

“I’m worried about the government’s so-called counter-extremism agenda and what it means for trust and freedoms on campus,” she says. “This whole non-platforming thing is really foolish.

“This is the internet age, there’s no such thing as no platform in the internet age. If you’re concerned about somebody’s opinion take them on, have the debate. It’s a very hollow victory to think that you change anything by looking the other way or facing the other way.”

Moving on

Looking the other way is something nobody will accuse Chakrabarti of doing. When Lawyer 2B meets her, she says her next plans consist of some reading, writing and deciding what to do next – she has since announced a move to 39 Essex Chambers.

She will be succeeded at Liberty by Doughty Street Chambers barrister Martha Spurrier, who was  only called to the Bar in 2010. As a lawyer, Chakrabarti says Spurrier will have to adapt the way she works.

“If it’s a lawyer they’ll have to learn to speak the language not just of law but of right and wrong and fair and unfair,” she explains. Chakrabarti says her own experience has taught her that being legalistic is not always rthe right approach in public advocacy.

“Sometimes you need to be able to say ‘this is wrong’,” she adds.

She also has advice for those just starting out in the profession.

“Don’t just follow the money or what you think is sensible and prestigious,” she suggests. “You spend a lot of your life working. It’s really important to love your work and enjoy it and be with people that you like being with.”

Chakrabarti recounts an anecdote from her time reading law at the London School of Economics, when leading human rights barrister Helena Kennedy – now Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, and a good friend and mentor to the Liberty director – came in to talk to the students.

“She said you need good people with good hearts to come into the law,” Chakrabarti recalls. “It’s still true, whatever field of law people go into. In the end integrity and values are the most important thing.”

Liberty’s legal team

With legal work such an important part of Liberty’s everyday work, it has a team of four lawyers working full-time on cases and interventions.

The team, headed by legal director James Welch, takes on cases on behalf of members of the public. It also handles Liberty’s interventions into other matters, all the time looking to set precedent in the organisation’s field of human rights, public law and civil liberties. Cases are taken pro bono, meaning Liberty has the ability to pick matters up which would not qualify for legal aid funding.

“We have to turn away quite a lot of cases,” explains Liberty solicitor Debaleena Dasgupta. “If we have to turn something away but we think there’s a good case we’ll try to speak to other lawyers and get somebody to pick it up.”

That means Liberty works closely with the likes of Birnberg Peirce or Leigh Day. Dasgupta herself joined from Birnberg Peirce just eight months ago, and she says the legal aid world has always been particularly collegiate.

“If there’s a relatively straightforward case we make sure that a legal aid firm will be able to take that on and act for these people,” she adds.


Dasgupta says the life of a Liberty lawyer is very different from private practice.

“One of the things that’s brilliant about Liberty is having a legal team that takes on cases that supports campaigns and policy and that can help inform how we do our work,” she adds.

Liberty’s lawyers work closely with the organisation’s policy team – many of whom are non-practising lawyers themselves – to form debates and arguments.

The combined expertise has led to significant victories in the past few years. Notably, Welch acted for MPs Tom Watson and David Davis on a challenge to the 2014 Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIPA). In July last year the High Court ruled the legislation was unlawful, the first time primary legislation has been overturned in an English court. The Government appealed the ruling and the case will go to the Court of Justice of the EU in Luxembourg later this year.


Liberty also fights to have inquests opened into potentially unlawful deaths. Lawyer Emma Norton is currently involved in the inquiry into the 2002 death of Army recruit Cheryl James at the Deepcut barracks. Norton was also heavily involved with getting a second inquest into the suicide of Royal Military Police corporal Anne-Marie Ellement. Following the inquest in 2014, two soldiers were charged with her rape.

Welch says inquests are a particularly tough part of Liberty’s work.

“Families don’t feel like they can ever grieve until it’s done,” adds Dasgupta. “You sometimes end up being a counsellor as well as a lawyer. You have to learn to draw the line.”

Despite the fact the job can often be hard work and emotionally draining, Welch says the fact he has spent 16 years at Liberty is testament to how rewarding it can be.

Both he and Dasgupta are concerned about the impact of legal aid cuts on the community of lawyers doing the type of work Liberty does.

“It’s going to price out people from working-class backgrounds,” says Dasgupta. “Government relies on the good will of people to just keep doing more with less.”

City firms help out

Liberty itself picks up support from City firms Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith Freehills and Reed Smith, all of which send trainees on secondment to the organisation.

But Welch and Dasgupta are less convinced that encouraging City firms to support legal aid through pro bono is the right way to go.

“There’s a worrying belief in the Government that all lawyers can do all law but if anyone ever tried to get me to do their conveyancing they’d discover that’s not true very very quickly,” says Dasgupta, only half-joking. “It’s quite insulting to the skills that people have built up in their fields to suggest that everyone can just come in and do it.”

For those who want to get into this field, Welch says you need energy, commitment and skills.

“You want to be somebody who’s very committed to what we do and understand why we do it,” he says. “If you really want to do it you’ve just got to keep on banging your head against the door.”

Some key Liberty cases

2002 – Pretty v UK

Diane Pretty suffered from motor neurone disease. She was able to do very little for herself and wanted to be certain that if her husband assisted her in ending her life he would not be prosecuted. The case was unsuccessful in the UK but Liberty took it to Europe. The European Court of Human Rights held that this interference with her personal autonomy was sufficient to engage Article 8 of the Convention on Human Rights, although it also found that the interference was justified and Pretty lost the case. She died later that year.

2008 – R (Watkins-Singh) v Aberdare Girls’ High School

Sarika Watkins-Singh was suspended from school because she wore the kara, a silver bangle which is a symbol of the Sikh faith. Liberty argued that the school had discriminated against her on both racial and religious grounds. The High Court upheld her claim, finding that the school’s headteacher had shown a “worrying lack of understanding of the need for equality of respect for those with different ethnic or religious beliefs”.

2009 – Liberty v UK

Liberty and two Irish civil liberties organisations challenged the very broad powers to intercept electronic communications to and from the UK under the Interception of Communications Act 1985. The European Court of Human Rights held that the lack of clarity and openness about the circumstances in which someone’s communications could be intercepted and read led to a breach of Article 8.

2009 – Gillan and Quinton v UK (2005)

Liberty represented a journalist and a peace protestor, both of whom had been stopped and searched under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 at a demonstration outside an arms fair in September 2003. In a decision handed down years after the event, the European Court of Human Rights decided unanimously that the lack of safeguards surrounding the police’s use of the power to stop and search without reasonable suspicion led to a breach of Article 8. The Court was also influenced by the massive increase in the use of the power since it was introduced and the fact that it was disproportionately used against ethnic minorities.

2010 – JM v the United Kingdom

JM v the United Kingdom reinforced the unlawfulness of discriminating against a person on the grounds of their sexual orientation. Liberty’s client, ‘JM’, had been required to pay more in child support because her lesbian relationship was not recognised under rules that resulted in people in heterosexual relationships paying less. Overturning a ruling of the House of Lords the European Court of Human Rights found that treating JM differently on the grounds of her sexuality breached Article 14 of the Convention on Human Rights and Article 1 of the First Protocol.

2011 – Alder v UK

Liberty acted for Janet Alder, the sister of Christopher Alder who died in police custody. Alder took a case to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that her brother suffered inhuman and degrading treatment and that his death was never properly investigated. The Government fought the case until the final stages when it lodged its official apology with the Strasbourg court. It is believed to have been the first time the UK admitted violating Articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

2011 – Bryant Inquest

Liberty, acting on behalf of murder victim Naomi Bryant’s mother, used Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights to force an inquest into her death. The inquest found that Bryant was killed by convicted sex offender Anthony Rice while he was on licence from prison in 2005 and that errors by the prison, parole board, probation services and other agencies directly contributed to Naomi’s death.

2012 – Asuquo v The United Kingdom

Liberty issued judicial review proceedings against the Government in the case of Nigerian domestic worker Patience Asuquo. Asuquo had been brought into the UK on a domestic worker visa and was then forced to work long hours without any time off for almost three years while subject to verbal and physical abuse.

Once Liberty was involved the police reopened their investigation into Asuquo’s case, although the prosecution was ultimately unsuccessful.

The case went to the European Court of Human Rights but settled on “friendly” terms shortly before hearing.

2014/15 – Liberty & Ors v GCHR & Ors

Liberty, along with Amnesty, Privacy International and other civil liberties organisations, teamed up to bring a claim against the Government intelligence services in the wake of the leak of documents by US whistleblower Edward Snowden. The claimants alleged that the intelligence services’ activities breached Article 8 of the Convention of European Rights. The case was heard by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal three times in late 2014 and 2015, with a closed session at which the claimants did not appear. The tribunal made several recommendations relating to the way the intelligence services should handle intercepted information, and made a closed report to the Prime Minister.

Martha SpurrierMeet the new boss

The appointment of Martha Spurrier as Liberty’s new director came at the end of March, with the organisation’s chair Frances Butler saying she “shone out in a competitive field as our unanimous choice”.

Spurrier was called to the Bar and joined Doughty Street in 2010, having previously worked at Mind and the Public Law Project. She has acted on a range of human rights and public law claims as well as judicial reviews against the authorities, arguably the ideal experience for Liberty.

Spurrier was educated at Cambridge University, where she read history, before taking a Graduate Diploma in Law and the Bar Vocational Course.