The judge who finds ministers guilty

Since retiring as Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf has become one of the government’s fiercest critics, accusing it of bungling the fight against crime

It is hard to tell when Lord Woolf is angry. He has a kindly face and generally displays a half-smile even when talking about the most serious issues. However, it is fair to say that the former Lord Chief Justice is, at the very least, dissatisfied with the government. Since retiring as Britain’s most senior judge, Lord Woolf, now approaching his 75th birthday, has kept his counsel on what he believes to have been the failures of Tony Blair’s and now Gordon Brown’s ministers in crucial areas. However, with the publication of his new book, The Pursuit of Justice, a collection of his essays and speeches, he has decided the time is right to lay into New Labour’s record — and it is prisons that are in his sights.

“The way the prisons are run now is a terrible use of resources,” he says. “The government has instructed the courts to give longer sentences. The prisons cannot cope so the courts are pushing prisoners in through the front door and the government is letting them out through the back door.”

He says he was frustrated when the then Home Secretary David Blunkett decided to increase sentencing tariffs in 2002, and believes it was a disastrous example of the government being unduly influenced by the media. “They allowed the tabloids to set the agenda and tell them what to do. I hope that some day they will have the strength of character to take a long-term view and see it through. Some of our problems are so longstanding that it will take a long time to turn them around.”

He feels that the fundamentals need to be tackled first, starting with keeping less serious offenders out of prison as much as possible. “Keeping a prisoner inside for a year costs £39,000. Community punishments are much cheaper and more effective… Of course in some cases you need to have long sentences, but I am against having people in there who don’t need to be in there.”

What we do with prisoners when they are inside our jails is also something which exercises Lord Woolf. He is convinced that re-offending rates can be reduced by ensuring that the resources are made to count. “Two things would be very constructive. One is finding prisoners somewhere to live after prison and the other is finding them work. Another problem is the huge number of prisoners who cannot read. It would make a massive difference if a greater effort was made to get them literate.”

There have been instances when, as Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf stuck his neck out in support of the principle that criminals be given every chance to reform. The most high-profile of these was the case of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, the killers of two-year-old James Bulger in 1993. They were released on parole in 2001, aged 18, after a ruling by Lord Woolf. “I had a lot of stick over the two boys who committed the Bulger murder. If you keep them in prison they become institutionalised. If you let them out when they are young enough to be absorbed into society, then they have a chance. Of course it is a risk, but they were small children when they committed this crime. So far the indications are good that they can be turned around.”

Ultimately, Lord Woolf feels that, while the government tried to convince the public that it was being tough on crime, it neglected the part about being tough on the causes of crime. “There is no doubt that the most effective way of tackling crime is to start with the education system. Then you need a very well resourced police service because the biggest deterrent is fear of detection.”

Lord Woolf firmly believes that the British legal system is one of Britain’s greatest exports. Indeed, since he retired he has been asked to supply his legal expertise abroad — although he admits that the request to become president of the Qatar Financial Centre Civil and Commercial Court was unexpected.

“Qatar is not an Islamist state like Saudi Arabia and it does have a relationship with Israel. Still, I did ask them: ‘Do you know I’m Jewish?’ and they replied: ‘Oh yes, we know well that you are’.”

In fact, since his retirement Lord Woolf has been more active than he anticipated. He has been kept busy in a variety of roles, including as chairman of the ethics committee for arms manufacturer BAE Systems, a post he is reluctant to talk about.

Perhaps the challenge he is most excited about is his role in the Woolf Institute of Abrahamic Faiths, an organisation dedicated to promoting inter-faith relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims.

“There is no doubt that there has been an increase in radical Islam which is why doing something about it is so important,” he says. “If you’re ignorant of a faith it is easy to demonise it. The way to deal with that is to have others in the community who know what it is really about and can put things in perspective. If we try to protect each other by building walls, I don’t think we will get to the root of the problem.”

While Lord Woolf says he is not particularly observant, he is proud of the values which Judaism promotes. “My wife keeps a kosher home and I’m a member of a United Synagogue but I’m not religious. The important thing for me is the family aspect. Our religion instils good family values. On the whole I am surprised when I hear stories of child cruelty in a Jewish family, although I know it happens. People brought up with good values behave better.”

Born into what he describes as a middle-class family in Newcastle, Lord Woolf decided while he was still a schoolboy that he wanted to be a lawyer. It is a profession much favoured by newcomers to this country for good reasons. “People who came to this country as immigrants saw the law as a way of making progress.”

“Perhaps,” he adds, with the familiar half-smile, “studying Talmud for centuries gave us Jews a little head start.”

The Pursuit of Justice is published by Oxford University Press at £24.99

    Last updated: 4:37pm, September 23 2009