Lord Woolf warns ministers 'not to get it wrong' with terror laws

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One of Britain's most senior judges will warn the Government today that it must act within the law when introducing tough measures to counter terrorism threats.

In a direct response to David Blunkett's promise to consider compulsory ID cards and force through wider police powers, Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice, will say that in "times of stress ... the Government can get matters wrong".

He also warns ministers that they must not put themselves above the Human Rights Act by amending it to serve their own aims. Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Law in Action, Lord Woolf says: "The Human Rights Act is there as a valuable protection to protect the liberty of the citizens generally and, in doing so, the liberty of the individual.

"We are a country governed by the law and we mustn't allow the stresses and tensions, which are understandable, to deflect us from that."

On Sunday, the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, said it might be necessary to change the law to ensure that elected politicians were not prevented by civil rights considerations from defending their electors. He also said that politicians, not judges, were the guardians of the citizens' rights.

Yesterday Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative Party leader, said he accepted there might be a need to overrule the Human Rights Act to extradite suspected terrorists. He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "We are prepared to work with the Government – we think they ought to get on with that straight away. They ought to bring forward legislation to change what is necessary to change."

But the Lord Chief Justice says: "I hope, in taking action against those who are attacking our system, we don't lose sight of the importance of maintaining the system. It's our liberty which makes us want to protect the system and the Human Rights Act is a very useful check to see whether the Government's getting it correct."

Lord Woolf says the judges will have the final word on whether any emergency measure is compatible with the Human Rights Act, but Parliament has to decide whether to take any notice. He also points out that judges must not be afraid to take unpopular decisions: "It is one of the essential responsibilities of the judiciary to protect the unpopular individual if somebody is proposing to do something to him or her which is unlawful. That is the judge's job and if it makes the judge unpopular then he, or she, just has to say, 'Well, it's not nice to have the tabloids all screaming, "Hang the judge" but that's the judge's duty and that's what we're all about'."

Next week marks a year since the Human Rights Act, which incorporates into British law the European Convention on Human Rights, was implemented. Lord Woolf has been a vocal supporter of the legislation, encouraging lawyers to use it to make human rights arguments on behalf of clients.