Leading Article: Judges also need reviewing

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JUDGE John Prosser has brought the law into disrepute by his handling of a schoolboy rapist in Gwent. The 15-year-old boy put a headlock on a classmate who refused to kiss him on his birthday, dragged her from the school tennis court into a nearby wood and raped her. Judge Prosser allowed him to walk free, subject only to a three-year supervision order and a fine of pounds 500, so that his victim could go on 'a good holiday to help her get over the trauma'.

The judge's first offence was to pass a sentence that fails to reflect the seriousness of the crime. The Government's philosophy on this was laid out in a White Paper heralding the Criminal Justice Act, which came into effect last year. This stated: 'Punishment can effectively denounce criminal behaviour and exact retribution for it. The sentence of the court expresses public repugnance of criminal behaviour and determines the punishment for it. If the punishment is just, and in proportion to the seriousness of the offence, then the victim, the victim's family and friends, and the public will be satisfied that the law has been upheld and there will be no desire for further retaliation or private revenge.'

Judge Prosser's sentence achieves none of those goals, a failure aggravated by remarks once again suggesting that judges are prejudiced and out of touch. For Judge Prosser, it seemed a major mitigating circumstance that the young rapist came from a 'good and honest family'. As he put it: 'If I send you into detention, I fear you would mix with those who would teach you more bad habits. If I thought for one moment that would help the little girl you defiled, I would do so, but it won't' The messages there seem clear: detention is all right for rough boys from poor backgrounds, but middle-class chaps should be spared it; rape is a 'bad habit'; the victim would not be helped by her rapist being put away. Worst of all in terms of sheer insensitivity was his suggestion that a holiday would significantly help to heal the girl's mental scars.

In the Lord Chief Justice's guidelines on sentencing, five years' imprisonment is recommended as the starting point for rape convictions, extending with aggravating factors to a life sentence. Sentences on young offenders are generally less long. None the less, those aged 14 to 17 who commit very serious offences, which certainly include rape, can be given long custodial sentences - in young offenders' institutions or local authority secure units.

Since 1989 it has been within the power of the Attorney General, Sir Nicholas Lyell, to recommend a review by the Court of Appeal of unduly lenient sentences. The law was changed after public outrage when the judge in the Ealing vicarage case gave the burglar a higher sentence for burglary than for rape. Of the 106 cases so far referred, the sentences in 62 have been increased. Sir Nicholas told the Commons yesterday that he had asked for details of the case from the Crown Prosecution Service. That leaves open the question of how judges who perform incompetently can be subjected to scrutiny without the Government appearing to interfere with the judiciary. Last year the chairman of the Bar Council, Lord Williams, called for an inspectorate or panel of lawyers, judges and lay people to take up complaints about judges from the public. Judge Prosser's behaviour strengthens the case for some such body.