'Liberal' judge brings balance to Law Lords

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IN A MOVE which reflects a growing 'liberalism' within the judiciary, Sir Harry Woolf, a Court of Appeal judge, is to be appointed a Law Lord.

The brief statement issued by Downing Street yesterday gave no hint of the significance of his elevation. Replacing Lord Ackner - regarded as a right-wing establishment judge - Lord Justice Woolf, 59, brings an unprecedented balance to the House of Lords, Britain's final court of appeal.

Senior barristers and judges agreed yesterday that it was now doubtful that a panel of five Lords could be selected to guarantee a unanimous ruling which would reflect the establishment line - such as the decision last year to uphold the Government's broadcasting ban on Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing.

Lord Justice Woolf's appointment follows last year's elevation to the Lords of Sir Nicolas Browne-Wilkinson and Sir Gordon Slynn - both regarded as 'liberals' by judicial standards.

One leading public law QC said yesterday: 'These have been enlightened appointments. They have put into the Lords people of decent moral values who are very strong on constitutional and public law issues. It must make the Lords one of the strongest supreme courts in the world.'

Sir Harry, for many years a senior Treasury counsel before becoming a High Court judge, is best known for his highly critical review of the prison system after the riots at Strangeways, Manchester. He had been tipped to become Master of the Rolls, after Lord Donaldson's retirement. But the post went to Sir Thomas Bingham, a fellow Court of Appeal judge.

Many of the leading judicial brains - such as Lord Taylor, recently appointed Lord Chief Justice - are now regarded as coming from the 'liberal' wing.

Two such judges, Sir Leonard Hoffman and Sir Christopher Rose, were yesterday among those appointed to the Court of Appeal.

Although the promotions were broadly welcomed by lawyers and observers who appreciate a balance in the Lords, they will not silence critics who say judicial appointments should be open to public scrutiny.

In recommending the new Law Lord and five appeal judges, the Lord Chancellor will only have made discreet and highly confidential soundings - mostly among senior judges.

Reformers argue that as the senior judiciary wields enormous power, there should be an end to secrecy governing their appointments.