Cherie Blair criticised for leniency

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The Independent Online

The barrister wife of former Labour prime minister Tony Blair was criticised by the Court of Appeal today for not sending a cocaine smuggler to jail when sitting as a judge at a Crown Court.

Appeal judge Lord Justice Pitchford suggested that Cherie Blair's decision to impose a 12-month suspended sentence on Lee Williams, following a trial at Isleworth Crown Court earlier this year, was "remarkable".

The appeal court quashed the "unduly lenient" sentence imposed by Mrs Blair - who uses her maiden name Booth when working as a lawyer - and replaced it with a three-and-a-half-year jail term.

Lord Justice Pitchford, who sat in London with Mr Justice Tugendhat and Mr Justice Griffith Williams, ordered Williams, 43, of Hanwell, west London, to surrender to police.

Appeal judges quashed the sentence imposed by Mrs Blair, who had been sitting as a recorder - a part-time judge, after lawyers representing Conservative Attorney General Dominic Grieve asked for a review.

Bill Emlyn Jones, for the Attorney General - the Government's chief legal adviser, argued that the sentence passed by Mrs Blair had been "unduly lenient" and a "startling result".

The appeal court heard that Mrs Blair had imposed the suspended sentence after hearing arguments from barrister Matthew Morgan, who represented Williams.

"I don't know what spell you were casting in the Isleworth Crown Court," Lord Justice Pitchford told Mr Morgan at today's hearing.

"But this is a remarkable sentence is it not?"

Lord Justice Pitchford said cocaine smuggling had a "public dimension" and should normally attract "lengthy" jail terms.

"There is a deficiency, in the respect of the recorder, in her reasoning," said Lord Justice Pitchford.

"We consider the recorder was persuaded against her initial and better judgment and imposed an unduly lenient sentence."

He added: "In the most exceptional circumstances it may be possible for the court to take an exceptionally lenient course. We consider this present case is not in that exceptional category."

Prosecutors said Williams - convicted of conspiracy to supply a class A drug after pleading not guilty at a trial in March - had been involved in trying to smuggle cocaine with a street value of £145,600 into the UK.

In September 2010, American customs officers had intercepted a parcel containing nearly 1,000g of cocaine which was destined for Williams' home, the court heard.

They said Williams was not an "organiser" but argued he must have been "near the top of the food chain".

Mr Morgan disputed that argument, saying Williams lived in a bedsit and showed no "trappings of wealth".

Mrs Blair had taken into account Williams' poor health, and the fact that he had spent 240 days in prison on remand prior to trial, before handing down the suspended sentence, the court heard.

During today's hearing, Mrs Blair was referred to as "Miss Recorder Booth QC".

And the court clerk refused to allow a journalist to see paperwork relating to the trial and sentencing hearing, saying: "We do not give court papers to the press, only to law reporters."

But, after the hearing, lawyers confirmed that "Miss Recorder Booth QC" was Mr Blair's wife, Cherie.

Mrs Blair, 56, is based at Matrix Chambers in London.

A Matrix website says she became a barrister in 1976 and was elevated to Queen's Counsel in 1995.

"A high-profile expert in discrimination, public law, media and information law and employment law, Cherie Booth QC is at the top of her profession," says the website.

"Highly reputed worldwide, she has appeared in the European Court of Justice and in Commonwealth jurisdictions, and also lectures internationally on human rights."

Appeal judges said the cocaine, which had a wholesale value of £52,500, was wrapped inside a package said to contain a "gift".

Customs officers allowed it to be flown into the UK and delivered to Williams's home. Police then arrested Williams at his home.

Williams said the package was intended for a friend but a jury took less than three hours to find him guilty.

Judges heard that Williams was a man of "good character" except for a drink-driving conviction in 2008.

They said he was a long-term alcohol abuser who suffered from cirrhosis of the liver. Williams also suffered a stroke while on remand in prison.

He left school at 16 and held down a number of unskilled jobs.

Lord Justice Pitchford said Mrs Blair referred to the "need for her to perform a public duty" at the sentencing hearing in May and he said she had been entitled to consider "mitigating" factors.

He said the 240 days Williams spend in jail on remand would count as part of the new three-and-a-half-year sentence.