Top judge lambasts Howard

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England's top judge was yesterday set on a collision course with Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, after attacking the Government's sentencing plans and signalling that he would oppose them in Parliament.

Lord Bingham, the Lord Chief Justice, who was holding his first media conference since his appointment in May, insisted that the judges who heard cases were uniquely placed to decide what sentences fitted the crimes.

He went on to say that prison did not necessarily "work", and in remarks that will anger the "life must mean life" lobby, he backed the abolition of the mandatory life sentence for murder. He also criticised the Home Secretary's powers to decide the minimum "tariffs" to be served and whether prisoners should be released on licence.

Mr Howard, whose decision to raise the tariff of the child- killers of James Bulger was quashed by the Court of Appeal, is strongly opposed to all three of these changes. Nor has Jack Straw, his Labour shadow, shown any indication of support.

Lord Bingham, who, as a senior judge, has a seat in the House of Lords, insisted that the judiciary was entitled to voice its opposition to the Government's US-style proposals for automatic life terms for twice-convicted serious violent or sexual offenders, and minimum sentences for third-time burglars and drug dealers.

"The judge who tries a case, who sees and hears from those connected with the victim, who has the whole atmosphere locally generated by the case, who has very full exposure to the background of the defendant, who is by professional training and experience alive to all the many and complicated issues which affect determination of sentence, should not be told he has to do this, that, or the other, willy-nilly," he said.

The comments reveal Lord Bingham as perhaps less bluntly spoken than his predecessor, Lord Taylor, but no less independent-minded. Mr Howard's critics in the Lords will take them as their cue to launch an all-out offensive against the plans, but they are bound to re-ignite claims that the judiciary is seeking to inferfere in political decision-making. John Major has made it clear that he accepts none of the objections to what represents a major incursion into judicial discretion, and Mr Howard appealed to peers only last week to co- operate with getting the proposals on to the statute book before the general election.

Lord Bingham insisted that judges were alive to public concern about crime and warned against "knee-jerk reactions" to individual cases. Judges used to be caricatured as "bloodthirsty old men . . . now they are now caricatured as liberal pinkos who never punish anybody. Neither of these caricatures is at all close to the truth."

Asked if prison "worked", he said: "So long as somebody is in prison, he or she cannot be committing a crime. If you say to me `do I think that prison makes people better?', the answer is . . . it is not necessarily therapeutic to put an offender among the company for a long period of other offenders. Experience shows that they sometimes learn to become more sophisticated criminals."

Lord Bingham said the case had been made for the mandatory life sentence for adult murderers to be swept away, leaving judges to decide whether to impose a life term or not. He drew a clear distinction between a mercy killing and a professional gangster who killed in the course of a robbery.

In a further controversial move, Lord Bingham endorsed demands for research into how juries reach their decisions, and mounted a strong defence of his backing for the incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights into UK law. He disagreed with the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, that this would draw judges into the political arena.

What they have

said about the

Home Secretary

"Never in the history of criminal law have such far-reaching proposals been put forward on the strength of such flimsy and dubious evidence." Lord Taylor, former Lord Chief Justice.

"Sentencing should be left to the courts. If you really want to reduce crime, improve the detection and conviction rates." Lord Hailsham, former Conservative Lord Chancellor.

"The proposals would fetter judges' constitutional duty to do justice in mercy on behalf of the Queen." Sir Frederick Lawton, former Court of Appeal judge.

"The proposals for minimum and life sentences are contrary to most professional advice." Lord Donaldson, former Master of the Rolls.