Michael Howard has been accused of being "despotic" by Lord Donaldson, former Master of the Rolls, in a stinging attack on the Home Secretary's plans to lay down automatic sentences for some categories of offences.
"This is an attack by politicians on the judiciary as a whole," Lord Donaldson writes in today's Guardian. "It is one thing to be governed by the rule of law. It is quite another to be governed by a despotic, albeit no doubt benevolent, government."
This latest onslaught from a leading judicial figure comes in the wake of fierce criticism from the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor, of Mr Howard's Conservative Party conference speech last month. In it, the Home Secretary promised to bring in "two strikes and you're out" automatic life sentences for second-time rapists, and fixed minimum terms for persistent burglars and drug dealers.
Last week Mr Howard's plans ran into trouble in the Cabinet, as Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, said he saw "quite substantial difficulties" in putting them into practice.
The Home Secretary yesterday repeated his commitment to bring in a Bill to give effect to his sentencing changes before the next election, in a press release accompanying his speech to the Tory women's conference in London.
A senior Home Office source said last night that Lord Donaldson was "perfectly entitled to his view, but Parliament already set maximum sentences and it was wrong to say that minimum sentences would mark some major ... innovation".
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