Sir Stephen Tumim said it was unfair to ban anybody for life from holding any professional post and called on the legal profession to make greater effort to accept the rehabilitation of criminal offenders.
Sir Stephen spoke out after the appointment of Mark Leech, a former armed robber, as a legal consultant to a firm of solicitors in Liverpool.
Mr Leech, who served eight years of a 13-year sentence, obtained a law degree from London University after doing a correspondence course while an inmate at Blundeston prison in Suffolk.
But he has been told by the Law Society that he would not be able to obtain a practising certificate as a solicitor because he has a previous conviction for dishonesty.
Sir Stephen said it was time for the legal profession to accept that people could reform. He said: "I don't think you ought to be cut out of any professional post for life. I don't think you could come straight out of nick and become a solicitor but if you have shown integrity over a period you ought to be allowed to."
Mr Leech said: "We have paid the price. Surely we don't have to go on paying for ever more? What I would like to see is a situation like that in the United States, where people can come out of prison and qualify and practise as lawyers in their own right."
The former armed robber started work last week at solicitors A S Law. He will specialise in handling cases involving prisoners who are bringing legal actions over such things as medical negligence, prison disciplinary matters and failure of mandatory drug tests. He is also keen to assist prisoners he believes are victims of miscarriages of justice.
His first "client" is Henry "Big H" McKenney, who is serving life after being convicted of four contract killings in 1981. There was no forensic science evidence against McKenney, who was convicted on the word of a fellow east London criminal, Bruce Childs, who this week boasted from jail that he had committed five other murders as well as the six for which he is convicted.
Mr Leech, who is also chairman of Unlock, the national association of ex-offenders, said: "Unlike other people who give legal advice to prisoners, I am able to understand the prisoner's perspective because I have been in prison."
A Law Society spokesman said that a criminal conviction would almost certainly mean a practising certificate would be refused. Similarly, a conviction for a serious offence would mean that a practising solicitor would be struck off by the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors.
In Scotland, people with previous convictions can be allowed to practise if they can convince a committee of senior legal officials that they have fully reformed.Reuse content