Just how liberal is the head of the judiciary?

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham has been in the post for three years now. The judges under his wing have seen a welter of policy initiatives from both the Tory and new Labour governments – all of which will undoubtedly affect the way justice works in the next millennium.

So how does he feel about them? When he got the job he announced he would be holding a series of annual press conferences at which the press could ask his views. He has been as good as his word.

His on-the-record question and answer sessions have provided him with an informal but powerful sounding-off platform.

So how did he use his press conference last week? This year, despite his liberal credentials, he proved decidedly hawkish on a number of issues, although he spoke in very measured terms.

On 'life' sentences meaning life for some serious offenders:

Moors murderer Myra Hindley is currently challenging the order of the former Home Secretary David Waddington to keep her behind bars until she died. “It is not for man to stigmatise any fellow citizen as irredeemable… It seems to me that the possibility of redemption exists.”

On sentencing:

He is against the Home Secretary or any politician determining sentencing policy: “The determination of criminal punishment is a judicial not an executive function… How long someone should serve in prison is best determined by judges.”

On jury trials:

On the right of the defendant to choose jury trial, which Labour has been considering removing in “either-way” cases: “I see as false the view that the decision on venue in either-way cases should be a subject for the defendant alone,” he said.

But he emphasised that he had been told “quite forcefully by a criminal barrister of long standing” that among the black community “the right to elect a jury served an invaluable function” by eliminating suspicions of racial prejudice. “That is an angle on the matter that has force, but I would still incline to the view that with two-way offences the decision should be made by the court – with right of appeal should the defendant feel that it is wrong.”

On extending rights of audience to solicitors:

“We don't know exactly what the proposals will be but anything that lowers the standards of advocacy could prove damaging to the system.”

On extending rights of audience to crown prosecutors:

“It would be very unsatisfactory to go directly from no rights of audience to full rights because you would be giving those rights to people who are not ready to exercise them.” His other concern was that “many people have apprehensions about the objectivity of full-time employed prosecutors”. While many were clearly independent minded, “I have met government lawyers who seem lacking in the objectivity that one would hope for”.

On getting rid of juries for fraud trials:

He said a jury was not “a very suitable body for determining complex fraud decisions over months and months”. This was partly as the only people available for long cases were “the elderly, the unemployed, perhaps the housewife”. He said he would prefer to see a judge sitting alone rather than with two expert assessors. Experts' advice should be heard openly, he said, and be subject to cross-questioning.

He said he approved of very limited research into the way juries reach decisions, but only if there was no risk that it would lead to identifying a particular case which could then lead to appeals by the parties involved.

On freemasonry:

The Government has sent a questionnaire to the 5,400 members of the judiciary asking them whether they are freemasons. Two hundred have replied that they are.

On declaring membership of the freemasons, a move forced on the judiciary by Home Secretary Jack Straw: “The judges council said it's a matter of individual choice [whether judges should respond to the questionnaire] and that's my view.”

On televising trials:

“One's distate for televising trials has been greatly strengthened” he said, refer- ring to the Louise Woodward and OJ Simpson trials.

On legal aid:

“It remains to be seen to what extent conditional fees can occupy the ground vacated by legal aid. Explore other means of funding but take it slowly and gradually to make sure some section of society isn't excluded.”