Taylor returns to law and order fight: A day after the Lords' police Bill revolt, the Lord Chief Justice has criticised a key part of the criminal justice proposals

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Indy Politics
THE GOVERMENT'S law-and-order legislation came under renewed attack yesterday when, for the second time in as many days, Lord Taylor of Gosforth, the Lord Chief Justice, called into question a key part of a second flagship Bill.

In the face of an embarrassing revolt by the House of Lords on Tuesday, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, was already hinting at a climbdown over plans to reform police authorities and magistrates courts, when Lord Taylor delivered another blow last night - this time attacking proposals in the Criminal Justice Bill which undermine the defendant's right to silence.

Although Lord Taylor said that there was much to praise in the Bill, the criticism came at a delicate time for ministers who have placed law and order legislation at the heart of their 'back to basics' campaign.

Yesterday morning, the Home Secretary was clearly shocked by the ferocity of Tuesday's attack in the House of Lords on the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill, led by the former Conservative Home Secretary, Lord Whitelaw, Lord Callaghan, the former Labour prime minister, and Lord Taylor. Although he insisted that the peers' concerns were 'misplaced', he said that he might be prepared 'to modify our proposals which will allay concerns'.

He was forced on to the defensive again last night when Lord Taylor said that he and fellow judges were 'seriously troubled' by one aspect of the proposals to curtail the right to silence.

Clause 28 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill required judges to call the 'silent' defendant into the witness box in front of the jury, a move which might result in injustice. 'The jury may well regard a decision not to testify as showing the defendant is defying the judge.'

However, delivering the Tom Sargant Memorial Lecture to Justice, the law reform group, at Gray's Inn in central London last night, Lord Taylor agreed that there should be some limitations on a suspect's 300-year-old right to remain silent under police questioning. Under limited circumstances there should be the right to draw adverse inference from a refusal to answer questions and a judge could deal with the issue in his summing-up to the jury.

Lord Taylor's concerns over the controversial issue has widespread support in the House of Lords - many of whose members support the recommendations of the Royal Commission that there should be no inroads at all into the right to silence because it shifts the burden of proof from the prosecution to the defence.

But last night Lord Taylor said that the Royal Commission, while taking into account the series of miscarriages of justice, had concluded that the balance of the criminal trial had become over-weighted in favour of the defendant. One aspect in which the Government had moved to correct this imbalance was 'corroboration'.

Lord Taylor said: 'It has increasingly been felt that to require corroboration of complainants in rape or indecent assault cases on the grounds that they may be lying or fantasising is offensive to them.'

Uniquely, the two pieces of law-and- order legislation - the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill, and the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill - have managed to alienate every part of the criminal justice system, from the police to magistrates, justices' clerks, lawyers and judges.

But it is the police and courts Bill which is most vulnerable because of widespread concern that the legislation places too much power over the police in the hands of the Home Secretary - and too much power to the Lord Chancellor in the administration of justice in the magistrates' courts.

It is argued that the Home Secretary will have ultimate control of each police force - destroying the present tripartite structure between the local community, chief constables and the Home Office.

In fact, over the past 20 years there has already been a gradual shift of power to the Home Office and chief constables at the expense of the local authorities. Critics argue that giving the Home Secretary the power to appoint chairman and members of the local authorities, who, in turn, will have new powers to influence local chief constables, makes him all-powerful.

Similarly opponents of the plans designed to streamline magistrates' courts - including Lord Taylor - have not been placated by the Lord Chancellor's claims that greater efficiency is not being achieved at the cost of judicial independence. They argue that putting magistrates' clerks on fixed-term contracts - and making them accountable to a chief clerk appointed by the Lord Chancellor - again leaves the clerks open to political pressure.

Yesterday, Tony Blair, Labour's Home Affairs spokesman, joined in the attack, saying that the Government's plans to change police authorities would undermine community policing.

'This lurch towards centralisation will do nothing for police efficiency or morale,' Mr Blair said.

(Photograph omitted)