Convicted criminals may receive lighter sentences than they deserve because barristers no longer have to disclose their clients' previous offences to the courts.
The development, which became known over the weekend, could lead to dozens of prisoners being given lighter sentences than they would expect under the "three strikes and out" legislation.
The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, said on Saturday that the judiciary's representative body, the Judges Council, had decided to allow barristers to keep quiet when they knew that a defendant qualified for a mandatory tougher sentence under the provisions of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000.
Lord Woolf told the annual conference of the Bar that he and the council had first believed the barrister's duty to the court outweighed the duty to the client. But after representations from the Bar, the council had backed down.
Yesterday, Lord Woolf accepted that the ruling meant a court could pass a sentence that was "contrary to the express provisions of an Act of Parliament and the sentence would in fact be unlawful''.
Roy Amlot QC, the Bar chairman, said the police had the duty of uncovering a defendant's criminal background. The barrister, he said, owed a duty of confidentiality to his client. He said: "We think it's up to the Crown to prove somebody's background ... what is told to us in confidence remains a confidential matter.''
Mr Amlot said he did not believe there would be many situations where the police "are going to overlook a serious past conviction''.Reuse content