Judges are more in touch with ordinary life than most other people, the most senior judge in England and Wales said last night.

Rejecting claims by politicians and others that the judiciary is out of touch, Lord Phillips, the Lord Chief Justice, said their work meant they had a wide understanding of society.

"We do not live on run-down estates but we do travel on buses and Tubes and bicycles; we push trolleys around supermarkets; we have normal family concerns and commitments and neither are judges immune from the impact of crime," he said.

"And, day by day, our work gives us an insight into what is happening in all sectors of society, which is shared by very few."

Although Lord Phillips now has the use of an official car, cycling has long been his preferred method of travelling to court.

Addressing the Lord Mayor's annual dinner for the judges in the City of London, the Lord Chief Justice condemned recent criticism of judges' sentencing decisions in some sections of the media. These had taken the form of personal attacks that were "intemperate, offensive and unfair", he said.

Arriving at the Mansion House for the dinner last night, most judges were too shrewd to be drawn on questions designed to test their knowledge of supermarket prices and popular culture.

"I only push the trolley," explained Lord Phillips, "I don't decide what goes in it."

Other judges neatly sidestepped such questions as the price of a pint of milk or the names given by supermarkets to their premium ranges.

But Mr Justice Penry-Davey, who has recently been sitting in Sheffield, correctly identified Arctic Monkeys as the local band tipped for this year's Mercury Music Prize.

He also qualifies for one of Lord Phillips's other criteria of ordinariness, having been the victim of a mugging.

And unlike those judges who arrived at the dinner by car, Mr Justice Penry-Davey pointed out that he had come by train - standard class.

At the same dinner, Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, implicitly attacked fellow ministers and supported the judge whose sentencing decision was criticised last month by the media and by the Home Secretary.

John Reid had accused the Recorder of Cardiff, Judge Williams, of passing an unduly lenient sentence on the paedophile Craig Sweeney, a sentence which the Attorney General decided last week was not unduly lenient at all.

"While it is perfectly legitimate for ministers to address policy issues raised by individual judgments," Lord Falconer said, "ministers should not criticise judges. Just as judges don't do politics, ministers don't try cases."

This relationship was sometimes hard to maintain, he accepted. "It is sometimes in danger of being pushed - often by those beyond the relationship - towards conflict."

Lord Falconer told the judges: "We need to resist such attempts - together."

Turning to media attacks on the judiciary, the Lord Chancellor praised Judge Williams for remaining "completely silent" while being attacked.

Lord Falconer said that Judge Williams understood it was not sensible for the sentencing system to require him to say that Sweeney could be considered for parole after five years and 108 days.

"It is obvious that more judicial discretion is required," said the Lord Chancellor. "The public wants sentences which convince."

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