'People's judge' sets out vision for a better way ahead forward

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The Independent Online

In the 18 months since his appointment as Lord Chief Justice, Harry Woolf has established himself as the first "people's judge".

Regular appearances on BBC Radio 2's Jimmy Young Show have helped him talk directly to the British public but his willingness to speak on issues usually eschewed by his predecessors is what has propelled him into the political limelight.

In an interview with The Independent, the most senior judge in England and Wales is happy to share his views on drugs, wife-beaters and single mothers drawn into a life of crime. And on the day that the pop mogul Jonathan King is sentenced to seven years' imprisonment for sexually abusing boys, he is even prepared to talk about the dangers of miscarriages of justice in paedophile cases.

Outlining concerns passed on to him by investigators at the Criminal Case Review Commission, Lord Woolf says: "We have all got to be cautious not to readily jump to conclusions."

The nature of child abuse offences means claims are easy to make, he says. "They are committed in private, in situations where often the victim is in a position where the alleged defendant has responsibility. In those situations, they are often committed without any violence because the person has authority over the individual."

He says many cases involved one person's word against another. "But because of the nature of the offence you don't commit the offences in front of half a dozen people ­ it's not like robbing a bank." He is quick to point out that none of his comments relates to an individual case. That is easy to believe when he admits his busy schedule has left him ignorant of the facts of the King case.

Traditionally, the Lord Chief Justice avoids confrontations with ministers but, while Lord Woolf has not exactly been looking for a fight, it would take the restraint of a saint for the most senior judge in the land to have said nothing in response to David Blunkett's attack on the power of the judiciary and the suspension of the Human Rights Act. Lord Woolf's views on both subjects have already been given maximum publicity. Now he wants to concentrate on more common ground.

He supports Mr Blunkett's proposals for specialist courts for drugs and domestic violence offences ­ an idea rejected by Lord Justice Auld, who has just completed a two-year review of the criminal courts.

The advantage of dual jurisdiction courts in domestic violence and drugs cases, says Lord Woolf, is that the experience of magistrates and judges who hear civil and criminal cases could be used properly. It would also mean that an offender's circumstances could be considered in the round.

The need to break the cycle of drugs, drink and offending is paramount, Lord Woolf says. "Domestic violence runs in tandem with drunkenness and drug addiction. The new courts would mean more scope in tackling those who are in the habit of drinking to excess. It's extraordinary how you have this cycle."

Government proposals to give wide powers to the police, social workers and victim support groups so that they can apply for restraining orders against people who commit domestic violence have also received the Lord Chief Justice's approval.

Home Office research shows that too few women are willing to take their complaints to the courts themselves. By allowing third parties to go to court on behalf of victims, ministers believe domestic violence can be stopped. Lord Woolf says: "That's worthwhile considering. But if there's serious criminal conduct then the criminal courts must deal with it."

On the latest efforts by the police to soften their approach to ecstasy and cocaine possession, Lord Woolf is more circumspect. "It does seem there is scope for research and piloting to find out what works," he says. "So although I'm identifying a problem I'm afraid I am not very good in providing the solution."

The sharp rise in the number of women prisoners in the past few years is of more concern to Lord Woolf. He recommends establishing the equivalent of the Youth Justice Board for women offenders.

"We have now got the situation that quite a number of mothers with babies are in prison," he says. "So for every woman who is in prison who is a mother there is an impact on the family. It's why I think we can justify singling out female offenders where there should be concerted action not least because of the children who can be affected."

He says judges should consider carefully whether mothers should ever be sent to prison. But he acknowledges that "regrettably" there are occasions when it is inevitable.

Lord Woolf is a strong advocate of alternatives to custody and is keen for the courts to use community service orders more regularly while also addressing the social problems of female offenders. "We must learn to be more proactive than reactive," he says, in an observation more often made by ministers than judges.