The body which investigates complaints against judges has been accused of covering up the full extent of an investigation into Cherie Blair over her decision to hand down a lenient sentence to a convicted man because he was "a religious person".
An investigation into Mrs Blair, who is a devout Roman Catholic, was launched earlier this year by the Office for Judicial Complaints (OJC) following a request from the National Secular Society (NSS), which argued that a person's religious conviction should not be used as a mitigating factor during sentencing.
Mrs Blair – who goes by her professional name, Cherie Booth QC, in court – was sitting as a recorder in London's Inner Crown Court and was sentencing Shamso Miah, a 25-year-old from Redbridge, north-east London, who had fractured a man's jaw in a fight outside a bank. In her summing up, Mrs Blair explained that she was giving Mr Miah a two-year suspended sentence, instead of a six-month jail term, because he was "a religious person" who had not been in trouble before.
Following the NSS's complaint, the OJC released a two-paragraph statement on 10 June stating that an investigation by the Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice had concluded that Mrs Blair's "observations did not constitute judicial misconduct" and that "no disciplinary action" was necessary.
But in a separate letter to the NSS, obtained by The Independent, a caseworker from the OJC admitted that the complaint had in fact been "partially substantiated" and that, while no disciplinary action was needed, Mrs Blair would receive "informal advice from a senior judge".
One key paragraph that was not included in the statement released to the public read: "The Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice have expressed some concern about the impact Recorder Booth [sic] comments may have had on the public perception of the judiciary and the sentencing process. All judges must, of course, be very mindful of how they express themselves when dealing with sensitive issues of equality and diversity so as not to create the impression that some individuals can expect more leniency than others."
When the NSS asked the OJC to release the full findings of the investigation to the public, they were told that the correspondence between the two offices was covered by confidentiality clauses. Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the NSS, accused the OJC of deliberately burying the full details of the investigation.
"This has the feeling of a cover-up," he said. "Why did the OJC put out such a partial and misleading statement about this case? Why didn't it make clear that there were concerns about Recorder Booth's comments? Then it tried to silence the complainants by heading its letter to the NSS as 'Restricted' – not to be copied to a wider audience."
The OJC is the only body that handles complaints against members of the judiciary, including judges, magistrates, tribunal members and coroners. Last year it produced 22 rulings. Its website states that it seeks "to ensure that all judicial disciplinary issues are dealt with consistently, fairly and efficiently".
A spokesperson for the OJC stressed that both the Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice are able to give formal advice to any judicial office holder if they consider it appropriate. "Such advice is not a formal sanction and does not constitute disciplinary action and, as a matter of course, when advice is given it is not made public," the spokesperson said.
The OJC declined to release the papers of the investigation into Mrs Blair for public scrutiny, saying they were covered by the Data Protection Act.
But Mr Porteous Wood said the OJC should still have released a more detailed statement which would have informed the public that two senior judges had shown concern over Mrs Blair's sentencing decision and that she had been spoken to as a result.
"It should be noted that the facts we alleged in our complaint are not disputed and that the Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice have shared our concerns over this case," he said.
"We welcome them stating their concern that remarks should not be made in court that could be thought to imply that defendants should be treated differently because of their religion or belief. This is a timely reiteration of the fundamental of justice that everyone should be treated equally by the courts, whatever their religion, or lack of it."