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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 March, 2004, 23:16 GMT
Lord Woolf's 'radical' reputation
Lord Woolf
Lord Woolf has a history as a penal reformer
Britain's most senior judge Lord Woolf has a history of being outspoken in insisting on the need to keep the criminal justice system separate from politics.

In his latest comments he has attacked the government's plans for constitutional reform.

Lord Woolf said plans for a supreme court replacing the House of Lords as the top legal body will create a "second class institution.

And he said David Blunkett's plans to limit the right of appeal for asylum seekers was "fundamentally in conflict with the rule of law".

Last year he made a similarly tough attack on the home secretary's plans to restrict judges' power to sentence offenders.

'Burglar's friend'

Harry Woolf, or Lord Woolf of Barnes has a track record as a penal reformer and is no stranger to taking on the government.

He has consistently highlighted the problems of prison overcrowding since he criticised the government in his report following the Strangeways prison riot in 1990.

In January 2003 he again ignited a fierce debate about sentencing policy when he made a ruling during an appeal that some saw as a "burglar's charter."

He argued that when sentencing a first-time burglar, who had not used violence, the "starting point" should be a community sentence rather than 18 months in prison.

Britain's most senior judge has criticised prison overcrowding
"We are sending far too many people to prison," he said. "Short sentences are totally ineffective."

He faced criticism from some quarters most notably the Daily Mail who described him as "the burglar's friend".

His decision to set an eight-year tariff, in 2000, for Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, the juvenile killers of toddler, James Bulger caused outrage in the popular press.

His ruling was driven by his desire to keep the boys out of a young offenders' institution where the conditions were "so corrosive" as to rule out any hopes of a successful rehabilitation.

Prison reform

Penal reformers point to the Woolf Report of 1991 as the most enlightened blueprint for improving the prison system presented to any post-war government.

But successive governments have failed to curb the prison population.

Lord Woolf's interest in the state of our prisons stems from both a pragmatic view of justice and a deep humanitarian streak.

Harry Woolf was born in 1933 in Newcastle into a close Jewish family. To this day, he will always stay in on Friday evenings "more out of feelings of family than any religious obligations".

His father was a well-to-do builder and architect who, when the family moved to Scotland, sent his son to Fettes College, the so-called Eton of Scotland which Tony Blair was later to attend.

He read law at London University before fulfilling his national service.

He was seconded to the Army's legal service and began practising at the Bar in 1956.

One of the most influential periods of Lord Woolf's career began in 1974 under the Labour administration of Harold Wilson.

He was appointed as government counsel for judicial review cases, where aggrieved subjects wished to challenge official decisions.

Successful challenges

The idea of challenging government policy in the courts took hold with him.

In his later career, as he became a Law Lord, then Master of the Rolls and, latterly, Lord Chief Justice, he was to cross swords with many a home secretary on this question.

In 1991, for example, he declared unlawful a decision made by Kenneth Baker over an asylum seeker.

Two years later, he clashed with Michael Howard over his "prison works" policies.

Such actions have earned him the reputation of a radical, not a term he particularly likes.

But he has been responsible for a shake-up of the civil justice system.

He turned judges into active case managers and ensured many more disputes are settled by negotiation rather than expensive litigation.

He talked to as many people as he could, often travelling by bicycle or underground, shunning the official car.

"He's warm-hearted, charming and generous", says the Daily Telegraph's legal editor, Joshua Rozenberg, echoing the general view of Lord Woolf within legal circles.

But he adds: "If Lord Woolf has a fault, it's that sometimes he tries too hard to please both sides."

Woolf attacks justice reforms
16 Jun 03 |  Politics

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