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Wednesday, 16 October, 2002, 13:53 GMT 14:53 UK
Judge fires human rights warning
Police/11 September graphic
Anti-terror laws were brought in after 11 September
The courts must be ready to stop the government taking away people's human rights in the name of tackling terrorism, the most senior judge in England and Wales has warned.

Lord Woolf said it was "almost inevitable" that ministers would fail to protect the rights of minorities as they confronted what he said could be an even greater threat than Hitler.

Judges would not be popular for stepping in against the government, said the lord chief justice, but that was a price worth paying for guarding democracy.

Lord Woolf
Woolf says the threat could be even greater than Nazism
Lord Woolf's comments, made in a speech at the British Academy, come after Tony Blair said the Bali bombing was an urgent reminder to continue the fight against terrorism.

The prime minister said the UK was considering a ban on the Jemaah Islamiah group, which is suspected of involvement in the weekend's attack.

Lord Woolf's remarks were not a direct response to Mr Blair's warning but make clear the fears of some judges.

Too tough?

In the wake of the US terror attacks, human rights campaigners criticised moves to allow foreign terrorist suspects to be imprisoned without being charged.

The Special Immigration Appeals Commission has said such anti-terrorism laws broke the European Convention on Human Rights because it applied only to foreign suspects.

Home Secretary David Blunkett has appealed against that ruling, and is still waiting for a decision.

Lord Woolf said the 1998 Human Rights Act (HRA) meant there was less risk of the UK scoring an "own goal" when trying to guard against terrorism or violent crime.

Under pressure

"Today we are confronted by dangers that may be as great or even greater than those which threatened this country in 1939 when we offered succour to those fleeing from Nazism," he said.

"It is almost inevitable that, from time to time, under the pressures I have described, Parliament or the Government will not strike the correct balance between the rights of society as a whole and the rights of the individual.

"If this happens, then the courts can, as they could not before the HRA, act as a long stop."

Lord Woolf added: "If initiatives which are thought to be in the interest of the public are interfered with by the judiciary because of their adverse effect on the human rights of a minority, the judiciary will not be popular," he said.

"But such temporary unpopularity is a price worth paying if it ensures that this country remains a democracy committed to the rule of law, a democracy which is therefore worth defending."

'Vital check'

Lord Woolf's words won praise from civil rights campaign group Liberty.

The group's campaigns director, Mark Littlewood, said: "In the context of the current 'war on terror', public and political pressure can place our freedoms under a very real threat.

"The Human Rights Act provides a crucial check and balance to the often hysterical claims of the tabloid press and the accompanying short-term populism of politicians," said Mr Littlewood.

Independent judges could protect essential liberties, argued Mr Littlewood, but it was sad the government seemed "eager to retreat from its international human rights obligations".

See also:

15 Oct 02 | Politics
30 Jan 02 | UK
30 Jul 02 | UK
14 Dec 01 | Politics
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