Leading article: Sorry, Mr Straw, but politics and law don't mix very well

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The Independent Culture
THE JUDGMENT yesterday by the European Court of Human Rights regarding the sentences handed down to the young killers of two-year-old James Bulger was a reminder that politics continues to play too important a part in the legal system in Britain today.

Above all, it is ludicrous that the then Home Secretary, Michael Howard, was entitled to increase the length of sentence already decided on by a judge. One does not need to assume malice aforethought to acknowledge that there are dangers if a politician seeks to play to the gallery.

Mr Howard yesterday argued against the judgment, complaining about the European "itch to intervene". The European Court of Human Rights is not related to the European Union; like other European countries, we have signed up for a voluntary code, whose welcome impact is now clear. Mr Howard is right to suggest that a kind of European consensus lies at its heart. But to pretend that we can ignore this view as irrelevant to island Britain does no good at all.

When Mr Howard increased the sentence for James Bulger's killers, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, from 10 to 15 years, penal logic had little to do with it. Prison sentences should be based on the need to protect society and on a mixture of punishment and, more importantly, rehabilitation. Retribution should be nowhere on the agenda. Mr Howard has failed to understand that basic point, both then and now.

"Give me the child for the first seven years, and I will show you the man," said the Jesuits. In a young child, the seeds of the future person have indeed already been sown. But evil does not exist in a void. The children were 11 when they came to court. At that age, there are still many possibilities for change. Everything depends on what happens to the child in the years to come. The failure to acknowledge that fact shows a moral absolutism that Dickens would have shuddered at, and that we should long since have left behind. To argue this point in no way lessens the sense of horror at what took place that day in Liverpool. As James Bulger's father, Ralph, said yesterday, the Government lost on "a dud point". He was right to argue that this "reflects on the Home Secretary, not on the victims".

Even Sir Leon Brittan, the former Home Secretary who introduced the rule- change allowing politicians to set the tariffs for life-sentence prisoners, now appears to acknowledge the inappropriateness of those powers. A murder case that was in court yesterday - in which both victim and accused were from Jack Straw's Blackburn constituency - served as a reminder of the obvious difficulties that arise when politicians are asked to make decisions about judicial matters.

It is understandable that Mr Straw said he needed more time to digest the 120-page Bulger case ruling. What is less understandable is that William Hague and his cohorts have been so swift to dismiss it. Mr Hague described it as "not very substantial". In reality, Mr Hague's response is insubstantial. Yesterday's judgment included a unanimous decision that the setting of the tariff was unfairly determined; that verdict cannot simply be set aside.

The killing of James Bulger was a horrific crime. But the subsequent baying for the legal blood of Venables and Thompson did justice no service of any kind.