Falconer ‘should have stood up to Reid sooner’

Lord Falconer should have stepped in sooner when the home secretary criticised a judge last year.

That is according to a report from the House of Lords Constitution Committee this morning, which said the former lord chancellor was too slow in defending a judge’s decision in 2006.

The incident in question centred on Craig Sweeney, who kidnapped and sexually abused a three-year-old girl in Cardiff. In June 2006 he was sentenced to life in prison, but the judge in the case, John Griffith Williams QC, said Sweeney would be eligible for parole in less than five years.

The sentence was in line with government guidelines but, following a controversy over the apparent brevity of the jail term, then home secretary John Reid described it as “unduly lenient”.

He also asked attorney general Lord Goldsmith to review the sentence. After the review Lord Goldsmith found it to not be “unduly lenient”.

The Constitution Committee today said the lord chancellor should have stepped in sooner to defend the judge’s sentence, and by not acting he failed in his duty.

“The independence of the judiciary needs to be protected from populist politicians pandering to the prejudices of tabloid editors,” said committee chairman Lord Holme.

“The lord chancellor has a statutory duty to protect judges from inappropriate political criticism and to reprimand ministers who indulge in it.

“It is clear that in the Sweeney case, Lord Falconer failed in that duty and allowed the comments from the home secretary to go unchallenged for too long.”

To prevent this sort of problem in future the committee recommends the ministerial code should include “strongly worded guidelines” on comments made by ministers on specific judges.

“The government must learn to treat the judiciary as a constitutional partner, not merely the subject of change,” Lord Holme said.