Given those precedents, the Lord Chief Justice has signalled that Straw's stance on adults will prove legally wrong. It is a pity that macho politics have prompted Straw to fight a campaign which is of comfort chiefly to those who warn that the moment judges have carte blanche, 'evil' Myra Hindley will be out. And about time too.
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Hindley has now served 35 years, a decade longer than her original tariff. Of course, her crimes remain loathsome, but the measure of a decent society is its ability to extend justice to those it may deem reprehensible. Imprisoning people for political expediency, or to slake public bloodlust, is for despots and barbarians. The sooner the judges get their way, the better.
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But a more powerful judiciary also needs checks and balances. Today's leading judges, liberal and progressive, are all for a bit of new broomery, as long as it is not in their back yard.
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There will, for instance, have been little wig-waving euphoria over cries for the post of Lord High Chancellor Derry Irvine's preferred title to be abolished. Judges shrink from change, even to a Hydra-headed monster of a job whose incumbent is supposed to be judge, legislator and executive simultaneously, while, in Irvine's case, can-rattling and running a Puginesque version of Changing Rooms on the side.
Lord Woolf, number two in the judicial hierarchy, is thought to regard the Irvine row as 'most unfortunate', a view some would construe as euphemistic shorthand for rage at the Lord Chancel lor's stupidity in provoking calls for an independent commission to appoint judges and a Ministry of Justice. On the latter point, scepticism is the right response.
If a lesson of the Irvine affair is what happens when judicial and political powers clash, why create a Ministry to engineer just such a collision? Besides, we already have a Justice Ministry, fabled for its quick-fix laws and tough tactics. It is called the Home Office.
An independent commission, however, is vital. It is not good enough, in an age when the judiciary grows more powerful, for judges to assert that they are decent, hard-working meritocrats committed to changing a structure in which 11 per cent are women and 1. The watchword is 'evolution', and the difficulty is that if Darwinism had moved at this pace, the Royal Courts of Justice would be presided over by amoebas in wigs.
None the less, Derry Irvine has back-pedalled on a commission. His feeble claim during his non-apology that he had not 'closed his mind' reinforced the pantomime horse impression of a Lord Chancellor whose front end appears not to know what the back end is doing. Political when he ought to be judicial and judicial when he ought to be political, Irvine appears to be guarding his own supremacy while siding with judges who have yet to realise that the powers conferred on them by the Human Rights Act demand a payback in accountability.
But for the Lord High Chancellor, who has slithered free of last week's crisis, the real flashpoint is still to come. It seems likely, even inevitable, that the House of Lords will soon strip the Home Secretary of his remaining tariff-fixing powers. Lord Irvine has said that, in rare cases, taken to mean those of Hindley and other 'untouchables', the Government may refuse to comply with judges' rulings.
Woolf has indicated that such tactics would be unthinkable. The scene is set for a constitutional battle that may make the Lord Chancellor's dinner money collection look like very small potatoes. Drip by drip, the demonisation of James Bulger's killers continues. Last week, the Sun published scraps of letters supplied by a year-old arsonist who claimed they were sent to him by Robert Thompson. The writer, portrayed as a paradigm of depravity, had watched Silence of the Lambs featuring a 'deranged, flesh-eating psychiatrist' , played a shoot 'em-up computer game 'sinister and violent' and expressed pleasure when a relative had a new baby, thus proving beyond reasonable doubt that he was 'obsessed with tots'.
I suppose there must be year-old boys who haven't done all of the above, but offhand I cannot think of one.
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