Home Affairs Correspondent
The smouldering row between the Home Secretary and the judiciary erupted into open warfare last night when Britain's senior judge launched an unprecedented assault on government criminal justice policy.
Lord Taylor of Gosforth, the Lord Chief Justice, accused the Government of introducing a torrent of hasty legislation, much of it ill-conceived and contradictory, and warned that it was in danger of undermining public confidence in the justice system. Criminal law at the heart of society "should not be subject to arbitrary change by the powers that be, or to the vagaries of fashion", he said.
And, in one of the most withering speeches in what has become a long- running feud between Britain's most senior judges and ministers, Lord Taylor said flatly that Michael Howard's new proposals for tougher sentences for violent and hardened criminals "would not work".
Lord Taylor has always been careful to steer clear of judicial involvement in politics and personal criticisms of ministers, but last night's lecture to King's College, London - although carefully worded - sets him in headlong confrontation with recent Conservative criminal justice policy and in particular that of Mr Howard.
On top of the changes in the law, courts have been overwhelmed, Lord Taylor said, by management reviews, which "add to the pervading sense of frenzy and uncertainty".
Last night, clearly worried about the attack and anxious to defuse the situation, Mr Howard declined a personal response and confrontation.
Instead, at the end of a day of Home Office speculation about the contents of Lord Taylor's speech, he sanctioned a statement from officials. A spokeswoman said: "The Government has a duty to protect the public and to change the law in order to achieve that."
The statement set out a point-by-point defence of Mr Howard's proposals for a tough new sentencing regime for violent offenders, habitual burglars and drugs dealers.
Last night, the Home Secretary took some comfort from senior police, who had leapt to his defence saying that magistrates and judges were "clearly erring on the side of leniency".
But Lord Taylor said the proposals would lead to injustice, would take away any incentive for an offender to plead guilty and clog up the courts - and might just make violent offenders, knowing they face a life sentence, murder their victim and only witness.
"In my experience, having spent the best part of 40 years representing, prosecuting and passing judgment on criminals, I have no doubt that what primarily deters crime is the likelihood of detection."
Delivering his lecture, "Continuity and Change in the Criminal Law", Lord Taylor asked: "In stark terms, I wonder whether a repeat rapist, faced with an automatic life sentence, will not think it less risky to cut his losses by killing the only witness to his crime?"
Lord Taylor's criticisms come after detailed study of the Government's proposals and after a succession of other senior judicial figures - past and present - have voiced their concern. But, made after consultation with other senior judges, they will inevitably rattle the Conservative front and back benches, where some ministers and MPs have long been "gunning'' for judges after a series of humiliations in the courts.
They also feel that judges' "lenient" sentences have been thwarting the Government's fight against crime and that the judiciary is interfering too much in policy.
Lord Taylor said the last six years had seen more Criminal Justice Acts than in the previous sixty.
"Criminal justice law is threatening to become an annual event. Like the Budget, we are no longer surprised it is happening. We are merely curious to know what is going to be changed this year."
He said that recently the law on corroboration, the right to silence, and committal proceedings had been changed; sentencing policy had swung from one extreme to the other, and rules on hearsay and the withholding of previous convictions from the jury were under threat.
"It is not just the volume of legislation which has become alarming, with each successive Criminal Justice Act treading on the last one's heels. It is also the haste with which each is prepared.
"Significant and complex reforms are introduced by way of amendments halfway through the progress of a Bill through Parliament.
"As a result inconsistencies and lacunae have to be cured in the Court of Appeal or by even more legislation," he said.