Bingham to direct legal shake-up

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The Independent Online

Legal Affairs Editor

A radical shake-up of the legal system in England and Wales was heralded yesterday as the reformist judges Sir Thomas Bingham and Lord Woolf were appointed to the top two jobs in the judiciary.

Sir Thomas, currently Master of the Rolls, will be the new Lord Chief Justice in succession to the retiring Lord Taylor of Gosforth, and replaced in turn by the law lord Lord Woolf, who presided over the inquiry into the riot in Strangeways jail in Manchester in 1990 - his highly critical report still stands as the watershed of prison reform.

Both are vocal critics of the law's high costs and lengthy delays and their tenure is likely to result in the most fundamental reform of the civil justice system this century.

Among the judiciary's most radical thinkers, their willingness to question traditional practices could also see the legal profession's remaining restrictive practices swept away.

While less confrontational than Lord Taylor, who on Thursday savaged the Government's plans for minimum sentences, neither Sir Thomas nor Lord Woolf can be counted as judicial conservatives. Both have defended the judges' development of judicial review of government action and back the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law.

Sir Thomas began his legal career in the chambers of the liberal Lord Scarman, and has been a judge in the higher courts for 16 years, becoming Master of the Rolls in 1992.

Yesterday he paid tribute to his predecessor and pledged that he would build on the foundations that Lord Taylor had laid.

"Like everybody involved in the law, one's first feeling is one of enormous regret that Peter Taylor should have to resign in such unhappy circumstances," he said.

"I think all one can hope to do is do one's best to build on the wonderful foundations that he has laid."

John Major made it clear during Thursday night's Police Bravery Awards that he accepted none of Lord Taylor's criticisms, insisting that he and Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, wanted to make sure that "when a criminal is locked up, he stays locked up and isn't out on the streets within a matter of months committing identical crimes time and time again".

The Prime Minister added: "I have a very old-fashioned view - it's an old-fashioned view that prison works, that when a criminal is in prison he's not out on the streets wrecking the lives of ordinary people."

The Tory MP and former Home Office minister David Mellor insisted on BBC Radio4's Today programme that the attack on the sentencing White Paper was a "total perversion and subversion of the constitutional principle whereby in a democracy it is for Parliament to determine what the sentence should be and for the judges to give effect to them."

A fresh dimension to the row over judicial intervention is set to open up on 5 June, when Labour's Lord Irvine, the shadow Lord Chancellor, will open a five-hour House of Lords debate on the relationship between the judiciary, legislature and executive.

As Lord Chief Justice, Sir Thomas will stand second only to the Lord Chancellor in the judicial hierarchy of England and Wales, presiding over the criminal division of the Court of Appeal. As Master of the Rolls, Lord Woolf will head the Court of Appeal's civil division.

Lord Woolf, who is away in Italy at the moment, was made a law lord in 1992 but his appointment as Master of the Rolls ranks higher, making him the third most senior judge. Appointed by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, to conduct a root-and-branch review of the civil law system, his final report on cutting spiralling costs and delays is expected in July.

The judicial reformers

Sir Thomas Bingham, 62, is one of the country's best legal brains but one of the least hidebound. He would happily cast aside his wig, and while attracted by the doctrines of neither right nor left, is prepared to challenge traditional orthodoxies.

While reformist and enlightened, he is not considered radical enough by some on the Bar's left wing - but is already the target of a hate campaign by the Daily Mail for his backing of the European human rights convention.

He led the inquiry into Rhodesian sanction-busting in 1977-8 and the BCCI investigation in 1992.

Courteous and with impeccable middle-class credentials but less, as barristers term it, "clubbable" than his predecessor, he is not an instinctive seeker of the limelight. But he was one of the first judges to agree to media interviews.

Lord Woolf, 63, is viewed as one of the foremost legal thinkers of his generation and one of the firmest upholders of the judges' right to review the legality of official decisions.

He recently invited the condemnation of Labour's Lord Chancellor-in-waiting, Lord Irvine, for suggesting that judges would refuse to recognise any attempt by Parliament to abolish or cut down judicial review.

A self-acknowledged liberal in the moderate and open-minded sense, his dedication to strengthening legal curbs on high-handed official behaviour have made him the darling of public-interest lawyers.

Like Sir Thomas, he has spoken the unspeakable and backed greater audience rights for solicitors.