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

The Jewish Chronicle - - FEATURES - BY SI­MON ROUND

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


Why are Jews are so suc­cess­ful as lawyers? Study­ing Talmud for cen­turies gave us a head start, says Lord Woolf

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