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Last Updated: Sunday, 18 June 2006, 04:53 GMT 05:53 UK
Judges break silence on sentences
Craig Sweeney
The home secretary labelled Sweeney's sentence "too lenient"
A senior judge has broken with years of tradition by speaking out against critics of his profession.

Council of Circuit Judges secretary Keith Cutler said colleagues were "pretty low" after mounting criticism over sentencing of serious offenders.

One newspaper called for judges to be sacked if sentences were too lenient.

Judge Cutler said some of the 600 judges he represents in England and Wales felt it was time for someone to speak for them in public.

Judges came under fire after child sex offender Craig Sweeney was given a life sentence but told he could seek parole in five years.

Since the Sweeney case - and the disclosure that 53 other "lifers" have been freed after serving less than six years - the handling of such prisoners has been under intense scrutiny.

Home Secretary John Reid, as well as tabloid newspapers, demanded that Sweeney's sentence be increased.

The Sun newspaper called for lenient judges to be sacked.

'Confidence damaged'

Only Lord Falconer, who as lord chancellor is in charge of the courts, came out in support of judges, saying it was the system that was to blame for the way sentences were determined.

Some of the judges felt that there was quite a silence, and there was no-one actually speaking on behalf of the judges
Judge Keith Cutler

Judge Cutler, in an interview for BBC Radio 4's Broadcasting House programme, revealed how deeply the row had affected his colleagues.

"Some of the judges felt that there was quite a silence, and there was no-one actually speaking on behalf of the judges," he said.

"We are thinking that we must perhaps change that."

He suggested it was time for the tradition of serving judge not speaking to the media to be reviewed.

"Otherwise... you have retired judges being asked to give comments on things that they're perhaps not quite up to date on and it's much better for a serving judge to be able to give a view - obviously not being able to comment on the individual case itself," he said.

He also revealed that the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales had written to all circuit judges saying it was legitimate for the media to criticise sentences but any personal attack damaged public confidence in the criminal justice system.

Sentence reduced

Sweeney, 24, admitted kidnapping a three-year-old girl from her home in Cardiff in January and sexually assaulting her.

He was given a life sentence with an 18-year tariff by Judge John Griffith Williams QC at Cardiff Crown Court earlier this week.

But this was reduced to 12 years because he pleaded guilty, and further reduced to 11 years to reflect the amount of time he had already spent in jail.

He will be eligible for parole when he has served half of his sentence, however ministers have stressed that does not mean he is entitled to parole at that point but merely that he can be considered for it.

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