Bingham to succeed Taylor as Lord Chief Justice

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The Independent Online
Sir Thomas Bingham, the Master of the Rolls, will next week be named as the new Lord Chief Justice in succession to Lord Taylor, whose illness with cancer is forcing him into retirement.

It is expected that the appointment of Sir Thomas to Britain's top judicial job will be announced on Thursday, in advance of a high-profile House of Lords debate on the Government's controversial sentencing plans, led by Lord Taylor.

The choice of Sir Thomas, 62, as the most senior criminal judge in England and Wales will take some lawyers by surprise because of his long association with civil work, currently as head of the Court of Appeal's civil division.

But his long-established authority and legal and administrative ability marked him out from other possible contenders. The appointment will be formally made by the Queen on the recommendation of John Major, after close consultation with the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay.

Some of Sir Thomas's reformist views - such as giving solicitors the same rights as barristers in the higher courts - have prompted the description "liberal" in some quarters. But this is probably a misnomer. Careful analysis, intellectual rigour and independence of mind are much more his hallmarks.

While ruling against former Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd over the legality of the Pergau Dam aid-for-trade affair, he has chosen his words carefully over the sentencing changes proposed by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary.

Minimum sentences are neither novel nor unconstitutional, he has said, but he has accepted that mandatory life sentences do not appear to have worked well in America. He has leapt to the defence of the independence of the judiciary, however, rejecting charges that judges have become too "political".

Because he is understood to favour the idea of Crown Prosecution Service lawyers having rights of audience in the higher courts - to which Lord Taylor is opposed - one of his earliest clashes might ironically come with barristers rather than with the Government.

He is the son of two medical doctors and the grandson of a solicitor's clerk. He was was educated at Sedbergh and Balliol, where he graduated with a first in modern history. Later he came top of his year in the Bar exams.

In what is likely to be one of his last public pronouncements on the justice system, Lord Taylor will open next Thursday's debate, a response to Mr Howard's sentencing White Paper, Protecting the Public. The Lord Chancellor will reply for the Government.

Critical contributions are expected from a range of opposition peers who believe Mr Howard's "prison works" policy is misconceived.