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Last Updated: Monday, 8 November, 2004, 22:10 GMT
What price for Woolf's tussles?
Lord Woolf once suggested judges could become more involved in "political areas". Now he has become embroiled in a political storm.

Newspaper reports have suggested the 71-year-old lord chief justice will retire next year, amid claims he has been bullied, rather than wait until his 75th birthday.

But in a statement Lord Woolf insisted he had always intended to retire in 2004 and had only stayed in office to see through the government's constitutional reforms.

Lord Chief Justice Lord Woolf
Lord Woolf has endured a torrid time in the press

Nothing had changed he says, stressing his plans had not been influenced by the government.

However a friend of Britain's most senior judge, retired law lord Lord Ackner, told the Sunday Times Lord Woolf was angry after falling victim to "grossly unfair" criticism from the media and Home Secretary David Blunkett.

"The Home Office has been constantly antagonistic and Blunkett, with his megaphone politics, has gone out of his way to misconstrue, mischief-make and bully him as well," said Lord Ackner.

'Distress'

One unnamed senior government figure has been quoted as calling Lord Woolf an "old codger".

Jeffrey Jowell, professor in public law at University College, London, who has written a key textbook with Lord Woolf, believes he is upset by intemperate criticisms of judges from ministers.

"I don't think he takes them personally but he is distressed that the whole office of the lord chief justice and the independence of the judiciary is being attacked," Professor Jowell said.

David Blunkett
Mr Blunkett says Parliament should set the sentencing framework
But he could not comment on whether media and ministerial criticisms would prompt Lord Woolf to retire early.

But on the general principle, he warned that it could undermine the rule of law if ministers attacked judges for their actual judgements rather than simply signalling they were unhappy and planned to appeal.

Prof Jowell said Michael Howard as home secretary and his Tory colleagues had played politics by suggesting judges were soft on crime and Mr Blunkett had followed a similar tack.

Last year, Mr Blunkett said people would wonder whether judges had "lost their marbles" when they saw cases like the three-year sentence for a 36-year-old having sex with several 13-year-olds.

'Blot'

The Home Office is not commenting on the latest reports about Lord Woolf. It stresses that Mr Blunkett's remarks are on-the-record and about specific issues.

Criticism has been not been all one-way and Lord Woolf has been outspoken about his concerns.

He said plans to deny asylum seekers the right of court appeal if their claims were rejected were a "blot on the reputation of the government". The proposal was later dropped.

A prison barred door
Too many are sent to prison, Lord Woolf has said

When Mr Blunkett suggested lowering the burden of proof in some court cases, Lord Woolf said he hoped the minister had been misreported.

And he also voiced unease about the government's decision to allow some defendants to be tried twice for the same crime and to allow juries to see details of certain previous convictions.

Lord Woolf also criticised Tony Blair for failing to consult judges before announcing he was scrapping the post of lord chancellor and setting up a Supreme Court.

But it is on prisons where he has stirred up most controversy, perhaps unsurprisingly for a man who hit the headlines in 1990s for criticising jail conditions in his report on the Strangeways riots.

In doing so, he has incurred the wrath of some tabloid newspapers, with the Sun now running a petition calling for him to quit.

Murder laws

He was accused of producing a "burglars' charter" in January 2003 when he said community sentences, not 18 months in jail, should be the starting point for non-violent first time burglars.

And he has said bluntly: "We are sending too many people to prison."

Among Mr Blunkett's tussles with judges was when they stripped him of his power to set higher sentences for murderers, ruling it was incompatible with human rights laws.

Lord Woolf was not among the law lords who made that judgement - indeed, he was on the Court of Appeal panel which had ruled in Mr Blunkett's favour.

But he did say he personally believed politicians should have a reduced role in sentencing.

Mr Blunkett hit back at the law lords' decision by steering through laws setting minimum jail terms for murder cases.

His view is clear: Parliament should set the framework for sentencing and judges decide how to implement those laws in individual cases.

Still learning?

In the latest twist, Lord Woolf has proposed that people admitting offences, including murder, at the first possible opportunity, could have their sentences reduced by a third.

It is that suggestion which has prompted the latest surge in tabloid ire.

In 1993, when he was a law lord, Lord Woolf told the Observer: "The new higher judges are used to intervening in political areas. Once you've done it once, it's easier to do it again.

"I for one have gone through an education. I am more prepared to see a role for the judiciary in areas where once I would not have - I do believe we need to extend a little further."

Such an attitude could mean Lord Woolf is at the centre of tensions between politicians and judges until he does retire.




BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
Lord Woolf, Lord Chief Justice
"It should be the judge alone to set the appropriate period"



SEE ALSO:
Too many jailed warns top judge
01 Jul 04 |  UK Politics
Woolf warning over justice system
23 Apr 04 |  UK Politics


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