He found these pie chuckers most tiresome

Last updated at 09:32 02 July 2004

Let us hear it, first, for Lady Woolf, wife of the Lord Chief Justice, who was mentioned during a parliamentary hearing yesterday and must be the most longsuffering woman in Britain.

Her husband Harry, top judge in England and Wales, was giving evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee. He was asked if he thought it was a good idea for judges to go to prison.

Before you all chorus, 'Yes! take 'em down!' let me phrase that more felicitously.

Lord Woolf was asked if he thought it a good idea for judges to visit prisons. Should their lordships not be familiar with prison regimes and routines before they sentenced criminals to years in clink?

Quite so, replied Lord Woolf. He himself had a great appetite for prisons.

'Whenever I am abroad,' he said, 'I like to visit the local prison. My wife is fed up. On holiday I take her off to a prison. She says I know how to show a girl a good time. We've been to prisons all over the world.'

To which one can only say that one is relieved not to be on the Woolfs' holiday postcard list.

Not one of life's thigh-slappers, old man Woolf.

What wit there is inside his creaky frame tends to be of the cautious, understated variety, delivered with the smallest lift of a hooded eyelid and a tiny broadening of his tortoise mouth.

David Winnick (Lab, Walsall N) asked about a recent speech he gave which was interpreted as a call for lenient sentences.

Had this been the first time a speech of his had attracted such flak?

Lord Woolf: 'Oh no. I've got past convictions.' Legal humour, see?

What he meant is that he has long been viewed by great sections of the fourth estate as a notorious, lilypalmed liberal who prefers to give a mugger a few hours of community service rather than banging him up in the Scrubs.

He did more of the same yesterday, stressing how beneficial - and cheap - community service and tagging could be.

If fewer hoodlums were sent to prison it would be possible to employ more probation officers.

On the balance of what I heard him say it did seem he was less interested in the victims of crimes than in the wrongdoers themselves.

Politicians were softly patted on the head and placed to one side.

Lord Woolf, talking in a deep monotone, felt that they were all too interested in stronger sentences. Politicians' comments had ' sometimes been unconstructive' in the past. The press and public, meanwhile, were pooh-poohed for the 'clamour' they can make for longer sentences.

'I totally accept that sentencing is of interest to Parliament,' said Lord Woolf, regret lurking behind every word.

A dry stick, he would make terrific kindling wood. He rotated his right hand slowly at the witness table as he spoke.

His lifeless eyes had pink rims, and under a prominent set of upper teeth there was not much of a chin.

It is hard to think of a less modernlooking man. Odd to think that he went to Fettes, the same public school as Tony Blair.

Lord Woolf was in front of the committee to discuss new arrangements for sentencing guidelines.

In time we will reach the point of having a sentencing booklet which offers a range of durations for every crime in the book. Lord Woolf hoped that once the new arrangements are in place, politicians and commentators will ease off their criticisms of judges.

he did seem to find these pie- chuckers most tiresome.Enter Mr Winnick again. 'Judges are often said to be totally out of touch,' he said. He added hurriedly: 'Nothing to do with yourself as such.'

Lord Woolf looked pained. 'I think that's overdone,' he intoned. 'The judge does have to hold himself apart from the public.

'But judges live in the community. They travel to work by Underground or bicycle. At the Royal Courts of Justice there is a row of bicycles, all being used by judges. I get spoilt with a car now, but I used to bicycle to work. Much healthier.'

Perhaps he and Lady Woolf can buy a tandem for their holidays.

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