Bingham tops contenders for Chief Justice

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Sir Thomas Bingham, the Master of the Rolls, was yesterday emerging as a potential successor to the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor, whose illness with cancer is forcing him into early retirement.

As the head of the Court of Appeal's civil division since 1992, Sir Thomas, a relatively youthful 62 but with an already formidable reputation, was being tipped as one of the strongest candidates to become the most senior criminal judge in England & Wales.

The suggestion took some lawyers by surprise yesterday because of Sir Thomas' long association with civil rather than criminal work, but this could be viewed as more than outweighed by his well-established authority and intellectual and administrative ability.

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, has already begun the process of consulting the High Court heads of division, of which Sir Thomas is one, senior Lord Justices of Appeal and some of the law lords over the succession to Lord Taylor, arguably the most popular Lord Chief Justice among lawyers and certainly the only one to have made an impression on the wider public.

Even barristers on the Bar's radical left, who view Lord Taylor as less liberal than is widely suggested, were grappling with a genuine and deep sadness about his predicament.

Fears were also being expressed about what some viewed as the most politically sensitive judicial appointment for a decade. Against the backdrop of the battle raging between senior judges and Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, over his sentencing plans, it could be the ultimate test of the degree of trust and confidence that exists between John Major and Lord Mackay, whom he must consult before making the final recommendation to the Queen.

The 59-year-old Court of Appeal judge, Lord Justice Rose, another widely- tipped candidate because of his broad criminal experience and (like Lord Taylor) Northern Circuit background, has been as outspoken on the Howard plans as his chief, and was branded the equivalent of a "do-gooder" after he suggested that mandatory life sentences for second-time rapists would lead more rapists to kill their victims.

Other suggestionsyesterday included Lord Justices Auld, Simon Brown, Mustill and [Paul] Kennedy. But Sir Thomas Bingham could be the most inspired choice. He has not shrunk from giving limited support for Michael Howard's sentencing reforms . He also backed Attorney General Sir Nicholas Lyell, not Sir Richard Scott, over public interest immunity.

For the Bar's radical wing, the law lord Lord Woolf, author of the Strangeways riot inquiry report, would be the dream appointment. But his shares did not appear to be rising yesterday.

Left-of-centre barristers spotlighted what they see as an unprecedented attempt by the Government to politicise law and order. Patrick O'Connor, a criminal QC, said: "It is very worrying that this dying Conservative government, which has been deeply politicising issues of law and order and encountered very effective opposition from Lord Taylor, has the power to appoint a new Lord Chief Justice who will rule over us for the next 10 years."

Possible successors to Lord Taylor

Sir Thomas Bingham, 62, the Master of the Rolls. Admired for intellectual rigour and pure reason. Made a QC at 39. Caused near apoplexy at the Bar in 1991 by suggesting solicitors should appear in higher courts. More patrician than Lord Taylor.

Sir Christopher Rose, 59, Court of Appeal Judge. Has the kind of background - Morecambe Grammar School, Leeds and Oxford Universities, Northern Circuit - that stood Lord Taylor in good stead.Condemned Howard plans for sentencing repeat rapists.

Lord (Harry) Woolf, 63, a Law Lord. Although once a Treasury counsel, would be a radical's choice. But most of his recommendations after the Strangeways riots have been ignored. Still involved in review of civil justice system.