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Last Updated: Monday, 16 June, 2003, 22:55 GMT 23:55 UK
Woolf attacks justice reforms
Lord Chief Justice Woolf
Lord Woolf: Justice and politics must be separated

The Lord Chief Justice has attacked the government for its planned reforms to the criminal justice system, accusing it of political interference.

Lord Woolf, the most senior judge in England and Wales, particularly criticised proposals by Home Secretary David Blunkett to restrict judges' power to sentence offenders.

Speaking in the Lords debate on the Criminal Justice Bill on Monday, he stressed it was crucial to separate justice and politics.

In response to the criticism, Mr Blunkett insisted he firmly believed in the independence of the judiciary.

But voters expected a "clear framework" of minimum sentences when it came to murder, he added.

Last month, the minister set out reforms of the legal system which would allow Parliament to set minimum terms for murder and a sentencing guide for judges.

That included "life meaning life" for the most horrific murders and upping the minimum tariff in aggravated murders from 20 to 30 years.

Lord Woolf said his speech was representative of the views of the judiciary.

The sentencing proposals concern civil liberties campaigners
He said sentencing must be taken "out of politics", especially where crimes as serious as murder were concerned.

"The provisions are bespattered with requirements as to what a judge must do," he said, during the second reading debate in the House of Lords.

It was crucial that trial judges should be allowed to "make the just decision, in the light of the particular circumstances of the cases, having heard argument from both sides", he added.

Mr Blunkett said: "The Lord Chief Justice and I have agreed to disagree on certain features of the Criminal Justice Bill.

"We are, however, united in our aim of improving the criminal justice system and I am confident that, under the guidance of Lord Woolf, the judiciary will apply the Bill."

Proposals in the Bill which were attacked by Lord Woolf included:

  • forcing judges to run their courts in specific ways

  • proposal to end automatic right to jury trial

  • the watering down of the double jeopardy rule

  • changing the rules of evidence
The home secretary said he was only interested in seeing an objective judicial system that was transparent, consistent and would build public confidence.

The controversial reforms listed in the government's Bill include plans to end trial by jury in certain specified situations.

In May the government faced a rebellion from 33 of its own MPs who joined with Tories and Lib Dems to vote against the jury plans as laid out in the Bill.

These propose that a jury can be replaced by a judge in complicated cases about serious fraud, or where there is deemed to be a danger of a jury being interfered with.

Previous moves to restrict jury trial have also foundered in the House of Lords.

'Massive disquiet'

Mr Blunkett has insisted that the change would only affect about 100 cases a year, with thousands of trials using juries as normal.

He said the measures would tackle the problem of many jurors being unable to sit on long trials because they were trying to hold down their normal jobs.

He pointed to the Robert Maxwell pensions case, where 750 jurors were called and 550 excused.

Speaking ahead of the debate Tory leader in the Upper House, Lord Strathclyde said: "We back most measures in this Bill - but the House of Lords has rightly said that we also need to be very careful before throwing out ancient liberties.

"The principles of the right to trial by jury, of the presumption of innocence, and the idea that trials should not be skewed against a defendant are long established.


"They are rooted in justice and common sense."

Lib Dems home affairs spokesman Simon Hughes said the government would be "foolish" to ignore Lord Woolf's comments.

"They can't have it both ways. Last week they reorganised the constitution to make judges more independent of politicians," he said in a statement.

"This week they refuse to accept the judges' plea for independence in relation to sentencing."

The BBC's Margaret Gilmore
"This is an almighty power struggle"

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