Lord Bingham of Cornhill, the senior law lord, said ministers did not always understand the reality of the independence of the judiciary. And he warned judges were "bound to take no notice" of a prime minister who ordered them "to do something" that was inconsistent with the rule of law.
His comments came on the eve of the publication today by Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, of fresh anti-terrorism legislation. The Government intends that it will pave the way for the detention and expulsion of potential terrorists and extremist Muslim clerics.
Tony Blair and Mr Clarke have appealed to judges not to overturn deportation orders of foreign terror suspects. Mr Blair said after the London bombings, which killed 52 people, that the "rules of the game" had changed, while Mr Clarke signalled that the Government was prepared to enact legislation to make judges take proper account of national security in these cases.
But Lord Bingham, a former Lord Chief Justice, said the maintenance of the rule of law meant that ministers would not always win their cases in court.
Giving the keynote address at the solicitors' conference in London, he said that "only a matter of weeks ago a mass circulation tabloid" had claimed that Mr Blair had "ordered" judges to do something. This, he said, had not happened, adding that the Prime Minister "knows that judges are sworn to administer justice according to the laws of the realm and not according to ministerial or prime ministerial diktat".
But he warned: "If any prime minister was to take it upon himself to act in such a way judges would be bound to take no notice."
Today's draft legislation, drawn up after the London bomb blasts in July, will increase the length of time terror suspects can be held without charge. Police leaders are pressing for them to be detained for up to 90 days, compared with the current 14 days, a move opposed by opposition parties.
Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said yesterday: "Three months detention without charge is the very antithesis of justice. This new British internment [is] as damaging to fighting terrorism at home as to defending our reputation around the globe."
Non-UK citizens accused of "unacceptable behaviours", such as fomenting terrorism, justifying or glorifying it, could be deported. Although Mr Clarke has struck a more conciliatory note towards the judiciary this week, ministers fear such moves could be frustrated by courts reluctant to return them to countries with a history of torture.
Lord Bingham said judges had an important role to play in the upholding of human rights of minority groups, because without such protection they might seek violent means to achieve acceptance in society.
At the same time he reminded judges that they should be impartial, without any vested interest in the outcome of the case.
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