In the Media

Judges threaten to quit over attacks on 'lenient' sentencing

PUBLISHED June 28, 2006

JUDGES are so outraged about their recent treatment at the hand of ministers and the media over sentencing that some are threatening to resign.

A straw poll of judges in The Times Law supplement today also shows that some are so incensed at ministers? criticisms that they are urging them to ?consider their positions?.

The comments from circuit judges coincide with a stinging rebuke yesterday from Britain?s most senior judge to newspapers for reports over sentences that profoundly undermine public confidence. 
Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, the Lord Chief Justice, takes sections of the media to task over reporting of sentencing guidelines which often, he says, merely reflect statutory criteria.

Lord Phillips says that misreporting of recent sentencing guidelines profoundly undermines public confidence and ?brushes aside months of thoughtful analysis?.

The judges? comments reveal the level of anger in judicial circles over recent criticisms by the Home Secretary and then by Vera Baird, QC, Minister for Constitutional Affairs.

One judge says: ?People are absolutely seething. John Reid and Vera Baird broke every convention in the book concerning the independence of the judiciary and ministerial interference.

?Their comments have far more serious implications than the sentences passed by the judges because they have departed from their consti- tutional role and should con- sider resigning.?

Of greater concern, however, are comments from judges that they either intend to resign or have done so. One confessed that the task of sentencing was now so complex that he struggled to cope. He admitted that he had resigned from sitting as a recorder, or part-time judge, because ?practice and procedure has become so complicated . . . that I no longer had any confidence in my ability to do the right thing?.

He added that judges and recorders who sit on criminal cases part-time ?are considering their positions?. Another judge said: ?I feel so grumpy about it all that I have had enough . . . I will throw my wig into the Thames and stagger, glass in hand, into the sunset.?

Lord Phillips focuses his anger on newspaper reports and in particular the coverage of recent draft sentencing guidelines on robbery which he said had earned him inch-high headlines in one tabloid: ?Ridi-culous ? Muggers must not be sent to prison, says our new Lord Chief Justice.?

In his first response to that coverage, Lord Phillips says that such reporting ?misre-presents the true nature of the robbery guideline?.

Much of it ?overlooks the fact that in many cases the council (Sentencing Guidelines Council) is merely reflecting the existing starting point for sentencing various offences?.

It also ?brushes aside the months of thoughtful analysis and consultation by the Sentencing Advisory Panel that precedes the council itself developing this work into a guideline,? he says. ?Public confidence is profoundly affected and even undermined by this type of portrayal.?

His comments come in the foreword to the annual report published yesterday of the Sentencing Guidelines Council, which he chairs. Lord Phillips adds: ?It is my hope that in my next report I do not have to repeat this message.?