Howard punished in each sentence

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The Independent Online
It was an extraordinary day in the history of English criminal law. Rarely in its history has a serving Lord Chief Justice been so driven to attack a Home Secretary as Lord Taylor of Gosforth did yesterday. Quietly but publicly shredding Michael Howard's proposals for heavier, and mandatory, sentencing, he was heard by a sombre and silent House of Lords aware of his personal tragedy.

Lord Taylor, who is being forced to retire at the age of 66 through cancer, and Mr Howard, his adversary, both went out of their way yesterday to avoid any suggestion of personal animosity. But then the Lord Chief Justice never needed to resort to it.

Mr Howard's idea of introducing minimum sentenceswithout regard to gravity, consequences or circumstances "quite simply, must involve a denial of justice". For Lord Taylor this was an historic moment: "Never in the history of our criminal law have such far-reaching proposals been put forward on the strength of such flimsy and dubious evidence."

Mr Howard insisted in a radio interview yesterday that his overriding responsibility was to give the ordinary citizens of Britain the protection they needed and deserved from the activities of dangerous and persistent criminals. Last night John Major emphasised his steadfast support for the Home Secretary in a speech in which he said that the proposals were designed to make the streets safer for decent citizens. But from the other end of an unbridgeable chasm, Lord Taylor spoke of the "enormity of the provisions".

By the end of the day, there was little doubt who had won the argument. The function of the court would be subverted by the proposals, Lord Taylor said.

Instead of sentencing according to the justice of each individual case, courts would take sentences off the shelf. In the case of the mandatory imposition of a seven-year sentence on a third-time drug trafficker, it would simply fill our jails with addicts selling small quantities to support their own addiction.

Yes, of course, he continued, the Home Secretary was right to point out that Parliament could impose a minimum- sentence regime if it wanted. Yes, the compulsory disqualification for drink-driving was a precedent.

But - and here came the killer line - "my Lords, I do not think driving a car is a fundamental human right. A licence to drive is a privilege granted by the state on condition that it will be exercised responsibly and safely. Its withdrawal does not seem to me to be in any way analogous with being put in prison for a substantial period".

As to second-time violent and sexual offenders, Mr Howard had highlighted the fact that in 1994, of 217 offenders convicted of a second or subsequent serious violent or sexual offence, only 10 had received life. "He did not say how many the Attorney General had referred to the Court of Appeal as being unduly lenient. Presumably, the Home Secretary thinks he should have referred all 207. In fact, he referred only six."

There was a very real public concern that a tiny minority of dangerous criminals could be released when they presented an unacceptable risk. One solution would be to revisit the 1975 Butler Committee for a reviewable sentence. It was not possible to justify doubling the number of life sentences simply by "scaremongering" about a very small number of offenders.

And lastly, who had said this: " 'The Government rejects a rigid statutory framework on the lines of those introduced in the United States or a system of minimum or mandatory life sentences for certain offences. It would also result in more acquittals by juries with more guilty men and women going free unjustly as a result'.

"Those words are not mine. They come from a government White Paper some five years ago. They are self-evidently wise, fair and just."

With those devastating words Lord Taylor delivered his parting shot as Lord Chief Justice.Whether minds have been changed remains to be seen, but it was a performance the English justice system will long remember.

Taylor warning, page 8

Judicial shake-up, page 21