Howard suffers worst humiliation yet

Tory justice: Home Secretary under pressure from British court ruling over IRA lifers in wake of Gibraltar row
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Home Affairs Correspondent

Yesterday's humiliating High Court rebuke confirmed Michael Howard's reputation as the minister who has fallen foul of the judiciary more than most.

It is the most serious because it comes as the Government is still licking its wounds over the European Court ruling that the IRA terrorists on a bombing mission in Gibraltar had been unlawfully killed. This time the domestic courts have accused the Government of flouting European conventions in unlawfully delaying parole hearings for IRA prisoners, not Strasbourg.

And this time there can be no complaint that it was a judgment defying common sense by a foreign court.

But ever since he delivered his tub-thumping 27 points to law and order at the 1993 Conservative Party conference, Mr Howard has faced rebellion from almost every quarter - not only the courts. His crackdown on crime legislation suffered what one predecessor called "humiliation by instalments" as the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill limped through the Lords. And as the Independent revealed earlier this week, its passage into law and practice has proved equally stormy - suffering two recent court defeats, patchy implementation by the police and resulting in few successful prosecutions.

Worse is to come. At least three major sections, including the abolition of the right to silence, are to be challenged through the European courts.

Mr Howard was forced into a climbdown when the former Conservative Home Secretary Viscount Whitelaw savaged his plans to give himself powers to appoint some members, including the chairmen, of police authorities.

Mr Howard was also accused by police chiefs of "an act of betrayal" over a voluntary redundancy package.

But his brushes with the judiciary have provided some of his most damaging moments. It was only five months ago that Mr Howard was last in the dock and found guilty. On that occasion it was by the Law Lords, who said that the Home secretary had flouted the will of Parliament by side-stepping legislation to bring in a cheaper compensation scheme for crime victims. That ruling called into question policy and not simply practice and prompted immediate emergency legislation.

The effects of a series of other rulings both in the domestic courts and European courts is forcing other major changes upon Mr Howard.

The House of Lords in 1993 ruled that the Home Secretary had to end the secrecy surrounding decisions over when to release prisoners serving life sentences on parole.

Last November, the High Court swept away more secrecy in the criminal justice process - this time surrounding the way the Home Secretary examines allegations of a miscarriage of justice.

Then it quashed his decision that two Kashmiri students should serve a minimum of 25 years for murder.

In the same month, he was widely reported to have narrowly avoided another judicial review over his refusal to allow the appeals of "the Guinness Four", by referring their case to the Court of Appeal at the 11th hour.

Just before Christmas, a unanimous decision by the 18 members of the European Commission on Human Rights removed Mr Howard's powers to fix the sentence for all juvenile murderers who are ordered to be detained "at Her Majesty's pleasure". If, as is likely, it is upheld by the European Court in Strasbourg, the ruling will force the Home Office to review the sentences of up to 400 young offenders detained for murder - and in many cases reduce them. They include the two 11-year- olds who killed the Liverpool toddler, James Bulger.

In January, a ban imposed by Mr Howard on prisoners being given temporary leave to consult their lawyers was reversed after its legality was challenged in the High Court.

Last April, gagging orders signed by Mr Howard and the then Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, blocking the use of crucial Whitehall documents in the Ordtech arms-to-Iraq appeal, were rejected by Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice.

However, Mr Howard has so far shown little remorse for his mistakes, saying simply that the courts are more active than they used to be.

But there could be more serious embarrassments to come. The al-Fayed brothers, owners of Harrods, have a judicial review pending over Mr Howard's refusal to grant them citizenship. Next month, the Howard League will challenge the establishment of child jails.

The High Court will also consider next month whether Mr Howard's policy of "closed" no-contact visits for "exceptional risk" prisoners, including a member of the IRA who took part in last year's armed escape from Whitemoor jail are lawful. One judge has already warned him that there is a danger of contempt of court.