Another page in history of conflict with judiciary

Bulger case: Home Secretary swayed by popular pressure
Click to follow
No one can dispute the intense public pressure for life to mean life after the convictions of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables for one of history's most horrific and troubling crimes.

One petition was signed by almost 300,000 people and another by nearly 6,000. Readers of the Sun sent in more than 20,000 coupons. More than 75,000 daytime TV viewers swamped a switchboard to demand that the two boys stay locked up.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, seemed more than willing to respond to the public outcry, apparently seeing the Bulger case and the sentencing of the two boys as a central plank in his law and order platform, a chance to demonstrate heavy sentencing for serious crimes. Instead it has proved his undoing.

For Lord Woolf the case marks his first big battle with the executive since his appointment as Master of the Rolls, and he did not shrink from the task.

While holding back from re-writing the law, Lord Woolf says Parliament must now reconsider how it deals with juveniles who commit serious crimes. He went as far as he could, constitutionally, in spelling out his backing for a more flexible, responsive regime for dealing with the uncertainties thrown up by cases involving child murderers. He also made plain his distaste for the "tariff" system that has come to treat juvenile and adult killers as indistinguishable, despite legislation intended to handle children differently.

Like the Home Secretary, the Master of the Rolls was aware of the force of public opinion. In giving his ruling he considered that it could well provide part of the explanation for the "striking difference" in the tarrif figures of the judiciary and the Home Secretary for the penal element of the sentence. But it was only at the point of possible release that public opinion could lawfully be brought into play.

But running a campaign to increase punishment in a particular case could amount to interference with the administration of justice, Lord Woolf said. "This being the position as to the courts, I find it difficult to see the justification for the Home Secretary taking a different view."

There was some small comfort for Mr Howard in that two out of the three judges were prepared to accept - provided it was done lawfully on the basis of relevant considerations - that "tariffs" could be ordered for both adults on mandatory life sentences and children held at Her Majesty's Pleasure,

the indeterminate and compulsory sentence for juvenile killers.

But if the House of Lords agrees with that, the case will inevitably go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Only last week, Mr Howard bowed to a Strasbourg court ruling in the cases of Prem Singh and Abed Hussein that decisions over the actual release on parole of offenders held at Her Majesty's Pleasure should be by a court-like body, without a politician having the final say.

If the House of Lords or, as is more likely, the European Court, strips a British Home Secretary of his power to

set minimum terms, it would mean that child killers would have their cases regularly reviewed, heralding a return to the idea of "juvenile justice" and leave the entire process in the hands of judges and an independent body such as the Parole Board.

An earlier European Court ruling, in 1990, abolished the Home Secretary's powers to decide on the release dates for prisoners serving discretionary life sentences - life terms for

serious crimes other than murder. Some human rights campaigners predict that it is matter of time before the final say in the release of those serving mandatory life sentences is also removed from politicians.

This is unlikely to faze Mr Howard - battling with the judiciary has become a hallmark of his three years as Home Secretary.

He has been accused of acting unlawfully, unjustly and unfairly with grim regularity. He has constantly batted back, insisting he feels "no personal remorse" over court rulings that he has exceeded his powers.

He declared in a speech to law students: "A number of the decisions that have been taken recently would have amazed people a few years ago."

Outside the courts, he is currently on a collision course with the legal establishment over his plans for tough minimum sentences.

Immigration has been another battlefield. In March a judge at an immigration appeal tribunal blocked moves by the Home Office to expel the Saudi dissident Mohamed al-Masari. The Government was forced into another embarrassing climbdown last month when Judge Pearl, the chief adjudicator, ordered Mr Howard to reconsider the deportation decision.

In 1994, the High Court ruled unfair his denial to convicted criminals of access to new evidence. That opened the way for at least 200 offenders to receive information on why their cases have not been sent for appeal, including Jeremy Bamber and those convicted of murdering the newspaper boy Carl Bridgewater.

None of this is likely to cause the Home Secretary sleepless nights, according to penal affairs sources. Denise Bulger, the murdered child's mother, yesterday called on the Home Secretary to "stay on our side" as she renewed her protests against the original, eight-year, recommendation. "What the judges are trying to say is that a kid can murder another kid and get a stupid sentence like eight years," she said. The Home Secretary is more likely to take heed of her words than those of Lord Woolf.