Shami Chakrabarti

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This was a BLD interview with Debo Nwauzu in June 2006. Also see Shami Chakrabarti's profile in the Directory


Shami Chakrabarti is a passionate human rights advocate  and the Director of Liberty, one of UK's leading and oldest human rights organisations since Sptember 2003.

Shami read law at the London School of Economics and graduated in 1991. In order to fund her Bar Finals she held several jobs for two years, including doing a bit of teaching for the University of London external law students and “pulling pints” at the Middle Temple Bar. She was able to fund her Bar Finals in 1993 and was called to the Bar (Middle Temple) in 1994. She did her pupillage at 39 Essex Street Chambers.

In 1996 Shami joined the Home Office as an employed barrister where she remained until the summer of 2001. At the Home Office Shami worked for both the Conservative and Labour Governments on policy, legislation and litigation in the Counter-terror, asylum and criminal justice areas and on the implementation of the Human Rights Act. During her time at the Home Office, Shami also acted in a number of high profile cases both in the House of Lords and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Shami’s bosses at the Home Office included Michael Howard, the then Home Secretary under John Major and the immediate predecessor of David Cameron as leader of the Conservative Party.

On 10 September 2001 Shami joined Liberty as In- House Counsel. This was indeed a very significant date as the day after she joined Liberty, we had the 9/11 attack on the United States of America. The effect of this was that Liberty suddenly had an automatic priority – domestic consequences on the war on terror. In the days and indeed weeks following the 9/11 terrorist attack, Liberty was one of the very few vocal, if not the sole vocal opposition to the emergency measures by the Government to combat terrorism, including the Belmarsh Policy (detention of foreign national without trial). Others were however, later to join the condemnation. Shami therefore became heavily involved in Liberty’s engagement with the “War on Terror” and with the promotion of human rights values in Parliament, the Courts and the society at large.

She has vigorously attacked the proposed ID cards, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 (prior to and since becoming law), the wide use of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) as infringing civil liberties, draconian, unnecessary (as there are laws on the statute books which more than adequately cover the same acts) and dangerous quick fix reactionary legislations.

In September 2003 Shami became the Director of Liberty. She has campaigned passionately, vigorously and tirelessly against anti-terrorist measures and legislations since the 9/11 terrorists attack and the more recent London bombing on 7 July 2005, even when this was an unpopular stance. There was hardly a day, particularly in the latter part of 2005 when Shami was not our screens, in the papers or on the radio.
She is a frequent contributor on radio and newspaper on issues on civil liberties and has published numerous articles on civil liberty issues for a number of practitioner and other journals.

Shami is a Governor of the London School of Economics and sits on the Advisory Board of the British Institute of Human Rights and the Executive Committee of the Administrative Law Bar Association and is an Editorial Board Member of the European Human Rights Law Review.
In 2004 Shami was selected by The Observer newspaper as one of 80 prodigiously talented young people who they believe will shape our lives in the 21st century. In December 2005, the BBC Radio 4 Today programme placed Shami on the shortlist of ten people who may run Britain. She was short-listed in the Channel 4 Political Awards 2006 for the "Most Inspiring Political Figure" award. In a vote made by the public, she came second behind Jamie Oliver, beating Bob Geldof, Tony Blair, David Cameron and George Galloway.

Also in 2005 Shami was named as a winner in the sixth annual Asian Women of Achievements Awards. She memorably had a single in her honour titled "Shami Chakrabarti" by the band the Dastards. Shami is touched by the single of the group who are members of Liberty. She describes the group as “talented members of Liberty who are an indication that it is not true that the young are not interested in politics but they are just uninspired by the political parties”. In February 2006 Shami was awarded the title of "anarchist in a barrister’s wig" by the ”laddish” magazine, Loaded.

Shami was awarded honorary degrees from Wolverhampton University 2004 and Loughborough University in 2005.

Below is our interview with Shami:

BLD: What do you say to those who state that you are more concerned about terrorists and not the victims, such as the 7th July victims of the London bombing?
SC: It is not true but I can see why people get that impression. However, it must be understood that when terrorist attacks happen, there is a knee-jerk reaction. Internment and racial profiling do not reduce terrorists’ threats and may well increase them. We at Liberty believe in human rights – of the victims and the suspects. We take on many cases of victims anonymously and there is no media focus on this. The media is however, much interested in caricature. Liberty is not for terrorism but against it. Far from being soft on terrorism, our belief is anti-terrorism.

BLD: If you were to choose a profession other than law, what would it be and why?
SC: Be a screenwriter because I love the cinema. You can subtly influence millions in an entertaining way.

BLD: What was the best career advice you were given?
SC: When uncertain about whether or not to accept a post, imagine turning down the job over the phone and hanging up and then see how you feel having done that.

BLD: What was the best career advice you will give to other lawyers and budding lawyers?
SC: Law is not easy. If you want to make lots of money there are easier way to do this and this is the same even if you are a top City lawyer. If however, you care about basic democratic society, there is nothing to beat it. A great lawyer is someone who can speak to non-lawyers.

BLD: The person you most admire (dead or alive)?
SC: There are so many! Of lawyers, Helena Kennedy QC, Davis Pannick QC and Julia Wheldon are just some of the great lawyers I have had the privilege of working with.  In politics, Mary Robinson. Also my husband, whom I admire as a person and as a lawyer.  

BLD: Tell us your professional high point(s).
SC: This job has been a great privilege and everything else is living up to it.

BLD: What was your worst case/worst moment as a lawyer?
SC: Undoubtedly losing the Belmarsh case before the Court of Appeal as it did not make sense that the policy of locking up foreign nationals because they were foreigners was upheld as right. Mercifully, the House of Lords overruled that decision.

BLD: What was the most famous/interesting case(s) you have handled to date?
SC: The Belmarsh case. I was still In-House Counsel at Liberty when the case started and was very involved with the trial which I wouldn’t be now as the Director at Liberty.

BLD: What are you most passionate/happiest about?
SC: my son

BLD: What are your dislikes?
SC: Arrogance.

BLD: Any professional regrets?
SC: Not intervening in the case of S v Marper which decided the legality of keeping the DNA of those acquitted (just like those who were convicted) for 5 years. Effectively lumping the acquitted with the convicted. We did not intervene as the government threatened us with costs. If we had lost the case, it would have placed Liberty in a potentially dangerous position, devastating our finances and being unable to deliver services. The case is now before the European Court and we have now intervened in the case.

BLD: If you could rule the world for a day what would you change/do?
SC: Ensure that the Home Secretary is not allowed to legislate for 5 years and concentrate on actually achieving positive outputs other than by legislation

BLD: How do you cope with the media attention and find the time to do so much – head Liberty, write, give endless interviews (like this one!), sit on different bodies and have time for family life?
SC: I have lots of help, fantastic colleagues and fantastic help at home. I have it a lot easier than a lot of other mums, especially single mothers.

BLD: Do tell us about your family.
SC:  I am married to a solicitor and have a 4 year old son. My family life keeps me sane!