Interview: Karen Todner
The Gazette owes Theresa May a debt of thanks for telling parliament when she did that ‘Pentagon hacker’ Gary McKinnon will not be extradited to the US. Just two days later, his solicitor, Karen Todner, received a standing ovation as she collected the Law Society Gazette Legal Personality of the Year award, principally for her tireless work on behalf of McKinnon and other vulnerable people fighting extradition.
If May’s timing was perfect, it was also serendipitous. Todner was the unanimous choice of the Gazette’s editorial team some weeks ago. But if we were relieved that the home secretary did not queer the magazine’s pitch, that adjective cannot do justice to how Todner felt when she was notified of McKinnon’s fate an hour before May rose to her feet in the Commons.
‘I opened an email telling me what the decision was, and I just sobbed,’ she admits. ‘It was just a release of all the stress and pressure of the last 10 years.’
Todner originally came to the case when she was recommended to the family in 2002 as an expert in computer law. It only became a cause célèbre of extradition law later, highlighting as it did (and does) the allegedly unbalanced nature of the UK’s extradition treaty with the US.
The former computer systems administrator has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, and is suffering from depressive illness. McKinnon faced up to 60 years in a US prison if found guilty of what one US prosecutor called the ‘biggest military computer hack of all time’.
But for Todner – most unusually for a solicitor of her generation – nothing less than the life of her client was at stake: ‘This was the equivalent of a death penalty case, because I knew if I had to tell Gary he was going to be extradited he would have committed suicide – I have no doubt about that. I never regarded that as a threat in any way, it was a decision he had come to.
‘That was what he was going to do. I was always aware of the horrendous consequences of the wrong decision being reached.’ McKinnon himself had been moved to a secret address ahead of last Tuesday’s announcement, in recognition of his acute fear that ‘the Americans were going to get him’, she adds.
I reach for the word ‘closure’ to try and grasp how it must feel to have been thus spared. But of course it is inappropriate. As we sit in Todner’s office just off Fleet Street in the heart of legal London, she is about to go into a conference to discuss representations to the director of public prosecutions concerning whether McKinnon should now face charges in the UK. Todner is relatively upbeat, notwithstanding: ‘Anything that happens now is fine,’ she stresses. ‘As long as it happens here, I am sure that Gary can cope with that. We’ll deal with it.’
May also announced last week that the government will seek ways to create a ‘forum bar’ – a court hearing that would determine where a person should stand trial. ‘I was overjoyed,’ says Todner. ‘I’ve been lobbying for the changes she is bringing in for the last five years. Because of the McKinnon case I have had quite a lot of political involvement and done a lot of lobbying with the media, and what she says she is introducing sounds exactly like I’ve been asking for. Some of things she said I was not happy about, like no legal aid for terrorist suspects. If you’re a suspect you should be entitled to legal aid because you’re innocent until proven guilty.’
She adds: ‘Because I’ve been doing extradition now for the last seven years, I’ve dealt with some really awful decisions. Seeing people who are obviously innocent taken away and put in a foreign prison is just awful.’
It falls to few solicitors to host press conferences that are broadcast globally, but Todner has been involved with so many high-profile cases that she has learned to rally the media to her cause. Recent cases have included Andrew Symeou, a student accused of killing a Welsh roller hockey player in Greece, who was cleared of manslaughter last year; and Christopher Tappin, the retired British businessman extradited to the US over allegations, which he denies, that he conspired to supply batteries for Iranian missiles. She has taken no fewer than eight cases to the House of Lords.
Todner says: ‘I am used to dealing with the media. I’m not fazed by it. I think it’s really important to co-operate with them because I’ve realised how influential they are. If you can get them on board it’s a real help, as it was with the Daily Mail and Gary McKinnon.
‘Sometimes the views that the interviewers have are just way off the mark. If you explain things to them, what they [publish] is so important.’ Todner accepts it is counterintuitive to record that a Conservative home secretary backed by the Daily Mail should come to the aid of a client on human rights grounds. But Alan Johnson’s ‘ungracious’ comments on the decision served as a reminder of New Labour’s lamentable civil liberties record. Johnson accused May of ‘taking the easy way out’, adding: ‘The home secretary is there to uphold the law; to put justice before popularity. This was an appalling decision irrespective of how many plaudits it receives.’
For Todner, coming through for McKinnon meant sitting tight for a change of government.
‘My intention from 2009 was just to keep Gary here, because Nick Clegg and David Cameron had been so supportive in opposition. If we could keep him here until there was a change in power I thought we had to stand a chance. They couldn’t walk away from it after all the public statements they’d given.’
She adds: ‘The medical evidence was absolutely overwhelming. For Alan Johnson to say he had the same evidence Theresa May had is simply not true.’ If the McKinnon case is a high point of Todner’s career, it is one of many, as her many media appearances attest. But even though she now runs a criminal legal aid firm with five directors, 80 staff and three offices, she is uncharacteristically hesitant when asked if she would recommend the law as a career choice today. One statistic she produces is particularly sobering. Kaim Todner used to offer as many as 14 training contracts; this year there is just one trainee.
‘Firms like mine that put into the system – we’re out nights and weekends representing vulnerable people – are really suffering at the moment, really suffering. I was heavily involved in the [2006 Lord] Carter review [of legal aid] and other reviews and it’s all very scary. The future is very worrying, partly because of cuts but also because of the ability to be paid for the work which you actually do, which is my biggest difficulty. The system is just so restrictive in terms of trying to run a business.’
She adds: ‘I love what I do and I would definitely recommend it to other people. But one of the things I am very aware of now is the horrendous debts people have when they come into the profession. Unless they have private means to deal with that debt they are going to find it difficult, which is an awful thing to have to say. We get inundated every week with applications from people with fantastic qualifications. But they can’t get a job.’
Todner believes the training regime, which ‘just doesn’t work’, requires wholesale reform. For that reason – and she knows her opinion is controversial – Todner does not support a trainee minimum wage, which the Solicitors Regulation Authority recently decided to scrap. ‘Criminal legal aid firms can’t afford to pay it, when they are having to put in for the training, professional skills course, and people are having to move seats just when they get to know what they’re doing. The training grants from the Legal Services Commission were good for a while, but they seemed to have dried up now.’
So what does the future hold for Kaim Todner in this uncertain environment? Todner, as someone who set up her own firm in her 20s and has seen it flourish, loves a challenge, which is surely one of the secrets of her success. She recalls: ‘I relished it. I worked every night, every weekend. I was out at police stations. We were working out of a tiny little office. I used to love going to police stations and arguing with policemen.’
One can be certain that Todner’s taste for an argument is far from sated yet. As she is someone so evidently immersed in the law, I hesitate before asking if she has any hobbies that take her mind off the day job, if only momentarily.
‘I am the mother of three teenage boys,’ she smiles. We agree that this closes down that avenue of conversation pretty conclusively – except to note, as she does, that they too (along with her barrister husband) have had to live with the McKinnon case, and shared her joy in last week’s landmark decision.
Paul Rogerson is Gazette editor-in-chief
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