Liberal approach of a man used to courting trouble

Portrait of a judge: Controversy has followed the legal chief who sought the common touch
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The Independent Online

With nearly 40 years' experience as a street-wise criminal lawyer, Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice, is used to confrontation.

Drawing on his own roots - he comes from a Jewish family in Newcastle, where his father was a doctor - he has tried to distance himself from the popular view of the judiciary as establishment, and therefore conservative, minded.

He has always thought his Jewish background helped make him more sympathetic and liberal. Asked why he thought he had become Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor, 66, said: "I would like to think that I am not thought to be, rightly or wrongly, wholly out of touch - that I am in the mainstream of life in the country."

Educated at a Newcastle's Royal Grammar School, he won a scholarship to Cambridge University. He was called to the Bar in 1954, and as a barrister, prosecuted some high-profile trials including those of the corrupt property developer, John Poulson, and the former Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe.

He became a High Court judge in 1980 and an Appeal Court judge in 1988 until he became Lord Chief Justice. He headed the inquiry into the Hillsborough disaster in 1989.

Since his appointment in 1992 as the second most powerful member of the judiciary after the Lord Chancellor, he has done much to open up his new post to public scrutiny, and has allowed unprecedented media access.

Lord Taylor of Gosforth, who is also the head of the Court of Criminal Appeal, has already had a number of public spats over government policy. He chided ministers for their proposals restricting a suspect's right to silence and criticised the delay in setting up a review body for miscarriages of justice.

Ironically, it was also Lord Taylor who criticised the "penologists, criminologists and bureaucrats in government departments", whom he blamed for the Criminal Justice Act 1991 which prevented the judges from sending persistent offenders to prison.

He has also been robust in his calls for the legal profession to move with the times. He recently gave women barristers permission to wear trousers in court and is keen for the profession to be open to anyone.

While considered something of a liberal compared to his predecessor Lord Lane, he still has a reputation for being very tough. He has been criticised for making conservative appointments and has refused to change the judicial appointments system, which is still carried out in secret.

Yesterday, he attended a memorial service for his wife, Irene, who died in July after a long illness. He has three daughters and one son.

For recreation, he enjoys playing the piano and until the age of 17 fostered ambitions to become a concert pianist. He told one interviewer: "It enables me to express feelings at the keyboard which would be quite inappropriate on the bench, so it's a contrast, I suppose."

Lord Taylor's statement in full

Long sentences, sometimes very long sentences, are necessary in some cases to protect the public.

But I do not believe that the threat of longer and longer periods of imprisonment across the board will deter habitual criminals.

What deters them is the likelihood of being caught, which at the moment is small.

I recently saw the Service Charter published by one police force. The chief constable had declared domestic burglary a priority area, and had set a target of 15% for the detection of domestic burglaries.

I make no criticism of the police, who do their best within the limited resources they are given.

But does anyone believe that a professional burglar who knows he has at most only three chances in 20 of being caught will be deterred by the possible addition of six months or even two years to his sentence?

The sentencing framework which the courts apply is contained in the Criminal Justice Acts 1991 and 1993.

There are maximum sentences of life imprisonment for rape and drug trafficking and 14 years for domestic burglary (though this Government interestingly reduced the penalty for burglary of non-residential premises from 14 years to 10 in 1991).

Judges apply this framework conscientiously, but must be free to fit the particular punishment to the particular crime if justice is to be done.

Minimum sentences are inconsistent with doing justice according to the circumstances of each case. Instead of limited judicial discretion by introducing unnecessary constraints on sentencing, the police should be provided with the resources they need to bring criminals before the courts in the first place."