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Mishcon Academy: Digital Session - In conversation with Nazir Afzal OBE, author of The Prosecutor

Posted on 10 November 2020

Nazir Afzal OBE, former Chief Prosecutor for the CPS joined us on 4 November to talk about his latest book, The Prosecutor, a memoir of struggle and survival as well as crime and punishment. The Prosecutor is both a searing insight into the justice system and a powerful story of one man’s pursuit of the truth.

Nazir will discuss his life from growing up in Birmingham in the sixties, as a young boy facing racist violence and the tragic death of a young family member – and how this set him on the path to his successful career, and which enabled him to help communities that the conventional justice system ignores.

Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions are a series of online events, videos and podcasts looking at the biggest issues faced by businesses and individuals today.

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions

Tim Thompson

Welcome everyone and thank you for joining this Mishcon Academy event.  I’m Tim Thompson and I’m hosting this session.  So, it’s my pleasure in this session to welcome Nazir Afzal, formerly Chief Crown Prosecutor for Crown Prosecution Service North West.  Nazir was a prosecutor for about 24 years, was involved in a number of very high-profile cases during his time in the CPS and was awarded an OBE for his work in the CPS.  And just to complete the introductions, for those who don’t know me, I’m a lawyer in the White Collar Crime Team at Mishcon and, I should add, I also used to be a prosecutor in the CPS.  I think I first met Nazir in the early ‘90s.  But Nazir, welcome. 

Nazir Afzal

Good afternoon to you, Tim. 

Tim Thompson

So, as a prompt to start the discussion, you’ve brought out a biography called ‘The Prosecutor’, and I’m going to hold up a copy of the book.  I particularly like the design of the cover.  It’s a very sort of lawyer in-joke cover.  The redaction and the highlighting.  Before we talk about some of the topics in the book, what made you decide to write a biography?

Nazir Afzal

I didn’t want to.  I was approached by Penguin Random House about two years ago now, and they said, ‘Nazir, let’s have a conversation’ so I had a conversation with them.  They said, ‘We’d like you to write your memoir’.  But initially, the conversation, Tim was around cases, ‘Tell us about big cases’ you know and I said, ‘Fine alright.’  So, I went away and wrote about, well, just started writing about some cases and said ‘I just thought I might do a preface to talk about my early years’.  I did that and they said, ‘Ooh this is interesting actually, can we have a bit more of that?’  So, I ended up with four chapters about my early years and they said, ‘We just want themes, we don’t… the cases should flow out of things that you were interested in or involved in’ and so it wasn’t something ever that ever occurred to me, Tim, it was something that they put in my head and then I realised, actually the whole process of writing itself was cathartic.  Number one, I imagine but also reflective.  I could… I was able to look back and try and understand where we came from.  You’re absolutely right, I joined the service in ’91 and we went through I would imagine a decade or so where really we weren’t on anybody’s radar as an institution.  But then, there was so much potential wasn’t there in what we did and what we could have done?  And so the writing of the book really was an accident more than anything else.  I think the final product is a statement really as to the journey I’ve been on and I hope the journey that others have been on and as you know, it’s tagged – the tagline is, ‘One man’s pursuit of justice for the voiceless’, again it’s not my tagline, it’s their tagline.  But it does demonstrate to my mind why I chose to do the job that I did and, I hope, why you chose to do the job that you do. 

Tim Thompson

I think one of the things that makes the book very readable is that you deal with legal issues and the challenges you faced in particular cases but by telling the stories with a very human angle.  How did that sort of approach…?

Nazir Afzal

For me it’s an immense privilege that people, victim survivors shared their stories with me as they did with you when you were Deputy Chief In Charge of Complex Cases.  You know, these are people who are impacted by the most horrible things that human beings do to each other, literally impacted.  Some of them have lost their loved ones, others have been subjected to such harm that they’ll never recover.  And so they you know, we were very fortunate that they were prepared to share their stories with us.  It was then our responsibility, our duty, to do what we could to deliver justice for them.  And you know, I’m nothing without the stories of these people and the impact they had on me.  So the stories that people have told me, the extraordinary impact, the extraordinary courage and their bravery never leaves you.  And so, absolutely this book and my full career is built on their shoulders, very brave, courageous people.  For us, the law was process but that’s easy.  What’s more difficult is ensuring that the human side of the law is engaged with and I’ve always lived for that and I’ve always wanted to be part of that.  I clearly wanted to tell those stories. 

Tim Thompson

Your book starts with you telling of how as a teenager you were the victim of a racially-motivated assault in Birmingham and you went home and you were saying you wanted to call the Police and your father said effectively, ‘There’s no point, there’s no justice for us’ and I think a theme running through the book is about your efforts to build confidence in communities, in different communities.  Did your father’s view of justice change while you were in the CPS?

Nazir Afzal

Yeah I think it did.  I mean, my father passed away in 2002.  My mother, who I mentioned earlier, passed away two months ago and  I feel like an orphan now, strange as it may sound but back then, absolutely.  In the ‘60s and ‘70s those of us who are old enough and I know I am, I don’t know if you are Tim you know, racism was extraordinarily overt you know, it was skinheads on the street.  I didn’t have neighbours, I had witnesses, there’s so much criminality.  The only safe environment I had was my home.  Outside of the home  attack, abuse, spits, threats, language.  So, is it no wonder that people of my father’s generation felt there was no justice? The Police never came you know they weren’t interested, they had other things to deal with and it was never you know, hate crime wasn’t a policing priority back then, etcetera.  So, absolutely you know my father only ever saw me once in Court actually.  He came to London once and sat whilst I was doing some advocacy and I used the F-word a couple of times because I was opening the case and when I came out he said, ‘Don’t use the F…’ I said, ‘That’s not… they’re not my words.  They’re the words the offender used’ but he, he was joking, he was joking.  I think he understood.  He understood that yes, we were now delivering justice and hate crime was now being taken seriously and it happened on our watch, didn’t it?  You know, the legislation came in whilst we were serving so I think things are very different although we’ve learned through Black Lives Matter and everything else this summer, we’ve still got a long, long way to go and you and I again, were part of the CPS during the Macpherson Inquiry and how institutional racism – David Calvert-Smith who was the DPP then admitted that we were, as an organisation, institutionally racist, the Police were, in fact every organisation worth their salt admitted to that and you know, my personal view is that we haven’t really changed a great deal since then.  There was, to credit to the CPS I was appointed Assistant Chief three months after 9/11.  You know, as a good Muslim boy, it shows that we as an organisation were more, were interested in talent and ability rather than just the colour or whatever, the face or whatever but, you know institutionally many organisations now haven’t made the strides that we hoped they would have made 20 years ago.  But I am absolutely certain that my father, God bless him, would not recognise the world of justice now compared to what it was like back then. 

Tim Thompson

One of the things you mentioned was the Macpherson report and the whole discussion about institutional racism and one of the things you discuss in the book is how that, that concept helpful as it is in some ways may have had a negative, an unintended negative effect in terms of Police officers or authorities who feared to deal with… who felt too nervous to deal with certain cases or confront criminality because they were accused of, they were afraid of being accused of racism. 

Nazir Afzal

Yep. 

Tim Thompson

And how do you see that sort of tension being resolved?

Nazir Afzal

Where we are today, Policing numbers are down by 21,000 in the UK.  Obviously, the Government are committed to raising that level but 21,000 officers, Tim, times 25 years on average experience – that’s half a million years’ experience you’ve lost.  They won’t be replaced by 20,000 new recruits and additionally again, prosecutors are now being recruited, but you know we left in 2015.  I had to deliver a 25% cut in my budget.  We lost substantial experienced prosecutors so, it’s much more difficult in the… that’s one issue right now so let’s go back to the Rochdale grooming gang case.  A young girl walks into a takeaway restaurant in Manchester in 2008.  She starts smashing it up.  Police attend.  They arrest her for criminal damage.  She goes back to the police station and she tells them that she is being sexually abused by these men and then there is an eleven month, by every account and including the Police themselves, really poor investigation by the Police.  They take the… they made a judgement about this victim that she would never be believed, that she has very traumatic and… back-history that she’s involved in loads of criminality.  All of those reasons that we’re all familiar with and decided and they went to two prosecutors and again the landscape back then was you know, the Police, if the Police come in with a very negative view of this case, you can put yourself in the shoes of those two prosecutors can’t you?  ‘Well, the Police don’t think that there’s any hope.  Therefore we won’t prosecute.’  So they decided not to prosecute.  I arrived in the North West of England and by that time The Times newspaper had been writing about these cases and so it was brought to my attention that we had one on our books, it was this particular case.  I took the view, I don’t know if you ever did but back in 2011, I had never reversed a decision to not prosecute a case until this one.  And so I reversed the decision to prosecute.  I took the view the reason why she was being a victim, and by that time we now had – 2011 – 47 victims of abuse.  We now had nine perpetrators.  So, our decision not to prosecute, the Police’s decision not to investigate properly, all that did was allow the perpetrators to act with even greater impunity, to pick more victims, to feel they can get away with what they were doing.  So, it was absolutely essential that we brought them to justice.  And as you know, we did bring them to justice in May 2012 when they were convicted and it led to a seismic work around child sexual abuse in this country.  But to answer your question, we have to go through a crisis like that or experience like that before people begin to take it seriously.  What then happens is knee-jerk.  We change the law.  We bring in some new guidelines.  I think you were party to that conversation and then we take our foot off the wheel because we’ve got so many other priorities and that’s when… sustainability is always an issue for me.  I go back to what I said, if you’ve lost all the Policing experience, prosecutorial experience, you’re not necessarily going to be able to sustain the response and so there have been recent occasions where we have been criticised - by ‘we’ I mean, Police and Crown Prosecution Service - have been criticised, because it haven’t done an effective job.  And you know, the Independent Inquiry in Child Sexual Abuse is taking place right now.  I’ve given evidence to that and you know we are, we’re no fur… we are further forward but we’re not as far forward as we could have been had we kept the resourcing in place, had we kept our foot on the accelerator. 

Tim Thompson

You joined the CPS in 1991 in central London.  My perception at the time of the CPS was of an organisation that had a very white male leadership, largely inherited from the County Prosecuting Departments, but particularly in London had a really diverse frontline workforce.  So, when you joined with that sort of... that split set-up, if I can put it that way between the people immediately around you and the people leading the organisation, what were your ambitions and what did you feel in terms of what you could hope to achieve?

Nazir Afzal

You and I back in ’98, remember we got, we got rights of audience at the same time and we were off to Southwark Crown Court wearing our wigs and gowns for the first time so to speak?  I just wanted to enjoy that experience of doing cases and doing a good job, that was my main driver, it was no more, no less.  The way you described senior management being white male and the rest of us not so, that’s true, going back to what I said earlier on, I spoke at a National Health Service event in January of senior leaders.  There were 400 National Health Service senior leaders from around the country in the room.  Now, the National Health Service you will know is between 20% and 25% from BAME backgrounds.  I was the key note speaker.  The Chair of the conference was Lord Victor Adebowale who’s the head of the National Confederation, NHS Confederation and that’s it.  Everybody in the audience, every one of the 400 senior leaders was white and that’s the National Health Service.  So, I don’t think we should criticise ourselves for the fact that the Prosecution Service and the Legal Profession is still got challenged by it.  But we’ve made more progress in my view, than some institutions which pride themselves on their diversity. 

Tim Thompson

Excellent.  Thank you very much and thank you for joining us and for being so open and candid.  I’m sure everyone’s found it really interesting. 

Nazir Afzal

I’m grateful to you all.  I wish you well. 

Tim Thompson

Thanks Nazir. 

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions

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