Absence of human rights law 'bruises judicial system': The Lord Chief Justice has joined the call for a Bill of Rights to be enacted. Heather Mills reports

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Indy Politics
THE REPUTATION of Britain's justice system has been badly bruised by the Government's failure to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into law, Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice, said yesterday.

But Lord Taylor's call for a Bill of Rights - the second such endorsement by a senior judge in as many months - is unlikely to sway ministers, who remain firmly opposed to the idea.

Labour however, concerned that the UK is becoming isolated from its European partners over the issue, is moving slowly towards a Bill of Rights. Tony Blair, the shadow Home Secretary, is known to be in favour.

Lord Taylor said Britain's decision to ratify the 1951 convention, but its failure over 40 years to put it into law, left Britain with the worst of options. When faced with a conflict, judges were obliged to apply English law, which could then be challenged before the European Court of Human Rights.

The process was slow and costly and, under the treaty, the Government was bound eventually to amend the law to comply with any ruling in Strasbourg. In the meantime, other cases may have been similarly wrongly decided according to English law.

He cited the recent Strasbourg challenges affecting the rights of life-sentence prisoners and the caning of schoolchildren.

'Our ratification of the convention obliges us in the end to accept it, but our refusal to incorporate means acceptance occurs only after a decision in Strasbourg, much delay and humiliation. It is as if we said in 1950 the well-known prayer, 'God make us good but not yet',' he said. 'The standing and reputation of our justice system becomes badly bruised.'

He added: 'I agree with the Master of the Rolls and other distinguished jurists that we should have the courage of our treaty obligations and incorporate the convention.'

The Lord Chief Justice was presenting the 1992 Richard Dimbleby Lecture on BBC 1 last night on The Judiciary in the Nineties. He was critical of the Government's recent squeeze on legal aid which left millions of people without access to justice, and also of the failure to appoint sufficient judges to cope with the backlog of cases. These were in danger of becoming a national disgrace.

'We all know that in a recession perceived priorities determine where cuts are made. There may not be many votes or economic gains in funding the justice system adequately, but to deprive that system endangers the very framework of our society.

'If the rule of law and citizens' rights are not safeguarded, the result may be not only the injustice but even unrest, especially during high unemployment,' he said.

Lord Taylor disputed suggestions that the judiciary was generally Establishment-minded, pro-government and biased in favour of the prosecution in criminal cases.

In a clear reference to the recent arms-to-Iraq controversy, he pointed out that it was a judge who had ordered the disclosure of the government documents - against ministers' wishes - which ultimately led to the establishment of the inquiry by Lord Justice Scott.