Taylor criticises new crime legislation

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The Independent Online
KEY PARTS of the Government's Criminal Justice Act are 'loosely worded' while other sections could give rise to public misgivings over the sentencing of offenders, Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice, said yesterday.

His comments came as it emerged that Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, was leaving one of his deputies to pilot tomorrow's launch of the Act. The move will heighten speculation that Mr Clarke is unhappy with legislation that was conceived in a more liberal era.

Yesterday's press conference - the first by a sitting Lord Chief Justice - will do little to ease the Government's difficulties as it attempts to present the Act as the modern centrepiece of its criminal justice policies.

Lord Taylor said: 'One of the things we will certainly have to look at in the Court of Appeal is how various, rather loosely-worded phrases in the new Act are going to be interpreted.'

Among these was Section 29, which lies at the heart of the Act, and which he described as 'difficult'. The first part of this section states that judges cannot take previous convictions into account when deciding what sentence to give. But the very next clause says that previous offences could be considered as an 'aggravating factor'.

Declining to try and interpret the section yesterday, Lord Taylor said it could only be resolved through judgments in the Court of Appeal. But he said the public might have 'misgivings' about a system which minimised the importance of previous offences. People might find it 'strange' that judges were not allowed to consider convictions when sentencing.

Lord Taylor went on to say that he would issue a practice direction telling judges that unless they cut the length of sentences, the prison population would 'bulge'. Under the Act, offenders who may at present be released on parole after serving a third of their sentence will instead be likely to serve half their term.

This required the judiciary to consider for the first time the probable date of release when passing sentence, Lord Taylor said. But he feared the public - unless it understood the workings of the Act - might get the impression that judges were 'going soft'. Appeal judges would discuss the issue and other sections of the Act at a seminar on Friday.

Last night, the Home Office said the Act had been designed to offer a 'framework' that left judges some 'flexibility'. A spokesperson denied suggestions that Mr Clarke was unhappy with the Act and said he had spoken in support of it at recent functions. He had delegated its public launch to the Home Office minister, Michael Jack, the spokesperson said.

However, sources close to the Home Office said Mr Clarke was sceptical about the benefits of non-custodial sentences, an important plank of the Act.

At the press conference, Lord Taylor also addressed issues unconnected with the Criminal Justice Act. As part of his desire to open up court proceedings he said he would make available to defence and prosecution lawyers case summaries written for appeal judges. This would allow barristers to point out any errors in the summaries. 'It is highly desirable that counsel will be able to say, 'Sorry, that is not right'.'

He welcomed a recent series of appointments to the judiciary, which included Lord Justice Woolf's promotion to the House of Lords. 'We have a younger and perhaps more liberal body of opinion there than we have had for some time,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)