Legal Crisis Erupts Over Paedophile Sentencing

Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, is expected to spark a major new row between politicians and judges by rejecting calls to refer the case of Craig Sweeney, a paedophile who kidnapped and sexually assaulted a three-year-old girl, to the Court of Appeal.The decision not to refer the high-profile case of Sweeney, 24, to the higher court will represent an embarrassing rebuke to the Home Secretary, John Reid. Last month Reid wrote to Goldsmith claiming the minimum five years and 108 days’ sentence handed down to Sweeney was ‘unduly lenient’ and should be reconsidered by the Court of Appeal.

His request for the sentence to be referred drew support from the public and media and was defended by Downing Street, who said Reid was ‘rightly articulating’ public concern. But the Home Secretary’s intervention antagonised judges and prompted a national debate on sentencing.

The Attorney General is now expected to tell parliament the tariff handed down at Cardiff Crown Court by Judge John Griffith Williams was within the sentencing guidelines and must therefore remain.

The decision is likely to outrage victim support groups and prompt dismay among the victim’s family. Following Reid’s intervention, the family’s solicitor, Anne Tyson, said they hoped justice would be served ‘with a significant increase in the sentence’. But it is also likely to raise questions over Reid’s decision to openly criticise a judge.

‘John Reid was both foolish and wrong to make comments about the judge and the sentence,’ said Dominic Grieve, the Conservatives’ shadow Attorney General. ‘What we really need is an urgent reform of the sentencing guidelines.’

The Home Secretary’s intervention in the Sweeney case provoked irritation within Goldsmith’s department, with the Attorney General privately expressing concerns that it would be interpreted as an attack on judges.

Goldsmith was also worried that it could potentially jeopardise Sweeney’s chances of getting a fair trial if the case went to the Court of Appeal.

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, was forced to observe his statutory duty and defend the judiciary, arguing it was the sentencing guidelines – not the judge – which needed to be questioned. He sprang to the judiciary’s defence upon learning Britain’s most senior judge, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips, was prepared to go public with his concerns at the way politicians were intervening in the judicial process, a move that could have provoked a constitutional crisis.

In a statement issued shortly after Sweeney was sentenced, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General said the case would be referred only if he believed it fell below what any judge could reasonably have passed. It appears Goldsmith does not believe that has been the case.

However, Goldsmith has acknowledged the need for a wider debate on sentencing guidelines.