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 Friday, 17 January, 2003, 17:07 GMT
Lord Woolf: Wild about Harry
Lord Woolf of Barnes

Britain's top judge, Lord Woolf, denies fierce accusations that his new sentencing guidelines are a "burglars' charter". But does doing what he sees as the right thing mean he will always be at odds with the public mood?
"We are sending far too many people to prison," says Harry Woolf, or Lord Woolf of Barnes, to give him his official title. "Short sentences are totally ineffective."

Lord Woolf has consistently championed the cause of penal reform and the problems of prison overcrowding since he criticised the government in his report following the Strangeways prison riot in 1990.

As a result, he has fallen foul of those who believe he epitomises the modern liberal malaise in which the scales of justice have tipped in favour of the criminal to the detriment of the victim.

"The burglar's friend", screamed the Daily Mail.

His biggest "crime" to date, however, was his setting of an eight-year tariff, in 2000, for Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, the juvenile killers of toddler, James Bulger.

Jamie Bulger's killers
His eight-year tariff on the killers of Jamie Bulger caused a storm
It caused a furore in the popular press. Lord Woolf's ruling was driven by his desire to keep the boys out of a young offenders' institution where the conditions were "so corrosive" as to rule out any hopes of a successful rehabilitation.

In fact, penal reformers point to the Woolf Report of 1991 as the most enlightened blueprint for improving the prison system presented to any post-war government.

To his great regret, successive governments have failed to curb the prison population, a necessary prerequisite for many of his reforms to work.

His interest in the state of our prisons stems from both a pragmatic view of justice and a deep humanitarian streak.

Harry Woolf was born in 1933 in Newcastle into a close Jewish family. To this day, he will always stay in on Friday evenings "more out of feelings of family than any religious obligations".

His father was a well-to-do builder and architect who, when the family moved to Scotland, sent his son to Fettes College, the so-called Eton of Scotland which Tony Blair was later to attend.

He read law at London University before fulfilling his national service. He was seconded to the Army's legal service and began practising at the Bar in 1956.

Strangeways prison riot
Lord Woolf wrote a critical report on the 1990 Strangeways riot
One of the most influential periods of Lord Woolf's career began in 1974 under the Labour administration of Harold Wilson. He was appointed as government counsel for judicial review cases, where aggrieved subjects wished to challenge official decisions.

He was up against the redoubtable Lord Denning and lost most of these cases.

But the idea of challenging government policy in the courts took hold with him, and, in his later career, as he became a Law Lord, then Master of the Rolls and, latterly, Lord Chief Justice, he was to cross swords with many a home secretary on this question.

In 1991, for example, he declared unlawful a decision made by Kenneth Baker over an asylum seeker. Two years later, he clashed with Michael Howard over his "prison works" policies.

Then there was the legal battle over the whole question of whether home secretaries could impose tariffs on sentences.

Such actions have earned him the reputation of a radical, not a term he particularly likes.

The epithet is certainly true though, of perhaps his greatest achievement, his shake-up of the civil justice system, the biggest for more than half a century.

Lord Woolf with his report on the civil justice system
Lord Woolf overhauled the civil justice system
In so doing, he turned judges into active case managers and ensured that many more disputes are settled by negotiation rather than expensive litigation.

In the process, he talked to as many people as he could, often travelling by bicycle or underground, shunning the official car.

"He's warm-hearted, charming and generous", says the Daily Telegraph's legal editor, Joshua Rozenberg, echoing the general view of Lord Woolf within legal circles.

But he adds: "If Lord Woolf has a fault, it's that sometimes he tries too hard to please both sides."

Perhaps a touch of naivety could be added to this criticism. It's not easy to balance the understandable concerns of burglary victims against the government's wish not to send people to prison unnecessarily.

But the way he presented his guidelines to the media was clumsy. Nevertheless, they demonstrated a humanity which has made Lord Woolf much respected even by those who don't share his views.

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