The Home Secretary reacted furiously to his latest rebuff by the judiciary, threatening legislation "to protect the supreme power of Parliament to shape the law", and announcing an appeal against what he described as a "quite remarkable" judgment.
Jamie Bulger's distraught mother, Denise, said she would devote her life to ensuring the two boys stayed in detention. "I don't think his decision was unlawful - in fact I don't think they should get out at all," she said. "They did an adult crime and they should be treated like adults. If they don't have to serve the 15 years, as far as I am concerned they are getting off with it. It will just have been like a little holiday for them."
But children's and civil rights groups hailed the judgment - which outlawed the fixing of a "tariff" or minimum sentence for child offenders - as a return to the concept of "juvenile justice". Britain stands almost alone in treating child offenders as young as 10 as if they were adults.
In fact, the ruling will not necessarily mean that the two boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, are released any earlier. It means only that their detention must be regularly reviewed. Read alongside a decision by European human rights judges earlier this year, that review must be by an independent "court-like" body - not the Home Secretary.
The ruling is seen as a further erosion of the Home Secretary's powers to fix sentences, and puts Mr Howard once again on collision course with the judiciary over crime and punishment.
The two boys were just 10 years old when they abducted two-year-old Jamie from a shopping precinct in 1993 and killed him on an isolated railway line in Walton, Liverpool.
They were sentenced "to be detained at her Majesty's Pleasure" - the indeterminate and compulsory sentence for juvenile killers. The trial judge, Mr Justice Morland, recommended that they should serve a minimum eight-year "tariff" - the proportion of their sentence which reflects punishment and deterrence, before they can be considered for parole. Lord Taylor , the Lord Chief Justice recommended a 10-year tariff, but the Home Secretary, who makes the final decision, ruled that it should be 15 years.
But Lord Justice Pill, sitting with Mr Justice Newman, said yesterday that the Home Secretary had adopted "an unlawful practice" by treating the boys in the same way as adult murderers serving life sentences.
He said Mr Howard had every right to take an initial view
on the length of detention needed to satisfy retribution and deterrence, but he had to ensure that was kept under constant review as their personalities matured and developed.
"What I cannot accept is that in the case of an offender aged 10 or 11, he can fix a tariff of 15 years as if the offender were an adult," he said.
The judge said he recognised the Home Secretary's responsibility - along with that of the judges - to maintain public confidence in the system of criminal justice. "Public revulsion at this offence is entirely understandable and reassuring. The public can be expected to express overwhelmingly their support for Mr and Mrs Bulger in the tragic loss they have suffered and to support measures to prevent such a crime happening again."
However, he said the Mr Howard had to give "regular and reasoned" consideration to what is achieved for the public good - even if he felt he was "sailing upon a stormy sea" juggling the law and justice, against media pressure and public outrage.
Mr Howard said the decision flew in the face of judicial practice and precedent. "The power I exercised was given to me by Parliament. It has been exercised 400 times without challenge since 1983."
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