LEGAL SYSTEM: `People's Judge' Sets out Vision for a Better Way Ahead Forward ; Lord Chief Justice Gives His Backing to Proposals for Specialist Courts in Cases of Drugs and Domestic Violence
Robert Verkaik Legal Affairs Correspondent, The Independent (London, England)
IN THE 18 months since his appointment as Lord Chief Justice, Harry Woolf has established himself as the first "people's judge".
Regular appearances on BBC Radio 2's Jimmy Young Show have helped him to talk directly to the British public. But his willingness to speak out on issues traditionally eschewed by his predecessors is what has propelled him into the political limelight.
In an interview with The Independent, the most senior judge in England and Wales was happy to share his views on drugs, wife beaters, and single mothers drawn into a life of crime. And on the day that Jonathan King was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment for sexually abusing boys, he was even prepared to talk about the dangers of miscarriages of justice in paedophile cases.
Outlining serious concerns passed on to him by investigators at the Criminal Case Review Commission, Lord Woolf says: "We have all got to be cautious not to readily jump to conclusions." But he is quick to point out that none of his comments relates to an individual case. This is easy to believe when he admits his busy schedule has left him ignorant of the facts of the King case.
Traditionally the Lord Chief Justice avoids confrontations with ministers. And while Lord Woolf hasn't exactly been looking for a fight, it would take the restraint of a saint for the most senior judge in the land to have said nothing in response to David Blunkett's attack on the power of the judiciary and the suspension of the Human Rights Act. Lord Woolf's views on both subjects have already been given maximum publicity. Now he wants to concentrate on more common ground.
He supports Mr Blunkett's proposals to push ahead with specialist courts for drugs and domestic violence offences - an idea rejected by Lord Justice Auld, who has just completed a two-year review of the criminal courts.
The advantage of dual jurisdiction courts in domestic violence and drugs cases, says Lord Woolf, is that the experience of magistrates and judges who hear civil and criminal cases could be used properly. It would also mean that an offender's circumstances could be considered in the round.
The need to break the cycle of drugs, drink and offending is paramount, Lord Woolf says. "Domestic violence runs in tandem with drunkenness and drug addiction.
"The new courts would mean more scope in tackling those who are in the habit of drinking to excess. It's extraordinary how you have this cycle. …