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Wednesday, 30 January, 2002, 12:00 GMT
Reformer in a robe
Jon Venables and Robert Thompson
Lord Woolf allowed the release of the Bulger killers
Lord Woolf has ploughed a controversial furrow since being elevated to the position of Lord Chief Justice in summer 2000 at the age of 67.

But his demand for tough sentences for mobile phone thieves seems to go against his track record as one of the most liberal members of the senior judiciary.

He provoked controversy in 1993 by suggesting that people who failed to protect their property - he said he meant cars - should be fined.

His hardened stance also seems to conflict with previous calls for reductions in the prison population and a concentration on automatic imprisonment for serious crime only.

Lord Woolf
Lord Woolf got the top job after a 45-year legal career
But the former Master of the Rolls is best known for reducing the tariff, or minimum sentence, to be served by the killers of Merseyside toddler James Bulger.

His much-criticised decision paved the way for the teenagers' early parole.

Lord Woolf maintained the killers were "entitled to credit" for their efforts to redeem themselves for their "horrible" crime.

But the judge - a father of three - has not been afraid to break from liberal thinking, floating the idea of "protective custody" for paedophiles who had not been convicted of a crime after the conviction of Roy Whiting for the murder of Sarah Payne.

The judge had first cemented his role as a reformer with his 1991 report on the Strangeways Prison riot.

Justice review

Recommendations that prisoners should expect decent minimum standards of treatment - including televisions in cells - drew ridicule from some quarters but were seen as a high-water mark in the penal reform debate.

In 1994, the lord chancellor appointed Lord Woolf to review rules and procedures of civil law in England and Wales.

The two-year Access to Justice inquiry concluded civil justice was "too expensive and too slow".

In 2000, Lord Woolf reached the top of the judicial ladder after a 45-year legal career.

Terror laws

As Harry Kenneth Woolf, he began his career at the Bar in 1956 after National Service with the Army Legal Services.

By 1972 - still in his thirties - he was a Crown Court Recorder, and he became a High Court judge of the Queen's Bench Division in 1979. Promotion to Lord Justice of Appeal followed seven years later.

Recently he called for the government's new controversial anti-terrorism laws - which allow detention without trial of foreign terrorism suspects - to be repealed as soon as possible.

And he has been a thorn in the government's side over asylum, leading a Court of Appeal ruling in 1999 that found Germany and France were not safe places to send refugees suffering from "non-state persecution".

See also:

08 Nov 01 | Education
Pupils warned over mobile phone theft
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