Roger writing the LAWmag

London Riots and the Criminal Mind

Harry Woolf of the House of Lords is called Lord Woolf, since he wears a white wig and sits on the Court of Appeal of England and Wales.

Back in December of 2002, a decision he wrote during his tenure as Lord Chief Justice, raised a small furor in the press. In McInerney & Anor v R, Chief Justice Harry Woolf rejected sentencing guidelines for home burglars, which called for a minimum jail term of 18 months.

Eighteen months for a violent crime like a break and enter did not seem extraordinary. But to Justice Woolf did not like sentencing guidelines; he wrote:

"We ... propose that instead of adopting a stepped approach (for home burglary offender) in cases in which courts would otherwise be looking to starting point of up to 18 months imprisonment, the initial approach of the courts should be to impose a community sentence."

Harry Woolf

It was no typographical error.

La-La Land at Old Bailey

Within days, hardened criminals convicted of home burglary were given community service awards and required to seek or obtain therapy.

Just one example of many examples, within a month of the decision, these words appeared in the London Telegraph newspaper in regards to a home burglary in which an elderly victim had required hospitalization to treat her injuries:

"Earlier this month, serial burglar Mark Patterson, 42, was spared jail and given an 18-month drug treatment and rehabilitation order - in line with Lord Woolf's guidelines. Patterson, of Deptford, south east London, was a drug addict who told the court he wanted to be a poet and had 31 previous convictions, including 11 appearances for burglary."

The Lord Chancellor (the Minister of Justice in England) came out in support of Justice Woolf.

Justice Woolf scoffed at the idea that he made a mistake and took the very unusual step of issuing a public statement, trying to again justify his decision and worried that it was a wrong interpretation that was in error:

"... the public will be left with a totally wrong impression.... This could seriously harm the public, by reducing, without justification, their confidence in the criminal justice system."

Cheyne Walk, Chelsea (south-west London) is one of the city's most exclusive addresses if not the country. Harry Woolf lives there. Again, according to the London Telegraph:

"Our investigation reveals that in the past three years more than 40 of the homes in Cheyne Walk, which Lord Woolf lists as his home address, have been targeted by thieves: a number have been broken into repeatedly."

burglaryIn May of 2011, the Sentencing Council reversed Harry Woolf's precedent, returning to a policy of mandatory jail terms for all home burglars.

Chickens Come Home to Roost

But not before the chickens may have come home to roost. Retired British prison doctor and psychiatrist. Dr. Dalrymple wrote, in the very days of the 2011 London riots, that judicial ignorance of criminality is a root cause. His theory is impossible to dismiss: that the writers know that short of killing a police officer, "nothing much is likely to happen to them whatever else they do."

Dr. Dalrymple:

"How deeply criminality is embedded in the culture and minds of at least some of the British population. It's the default setting....

"The number of people of whom this is true is uncomfortably large. This is something that are cowardly, lazy and dishonest political and intellectual class has long refused to consider the possibility, let alone acknowledge as a fact."

Dr. Dalrymple is correct but he misses another reality. Most judges have not been the victim of a violent crime. Justice Woolf's house has never been broken into; his wife never duct- taped while masked thugs rife through his personal papers. We would not wish this on any judge nor do we ludicrously suggest that it be a prerequisite to appointment, but it is a fact.

Further, many "criminal minds" are substance-abuse fun-seekers who, too, have their actions shaped by decisions such as that of Justice Woolf. Their attitude isn't mafia-like: it's a perverted badge of honour to commit crime just for the sake of the thrill of it. And if caught, no big deal!1

Some of those standing trial for home burglars may be potential good citizens just needing a gentle warning. Perhaps 1%?

But home invasion is a violent crime that should not receive a slap on the wrist but should be dealt with by sharp, stern justice.

Justice Wolff's experience shows that when judges hesitate when applying a statute imposed upon them in an area where they previously had judicial discretion, chaos can result as any public policy the legislator had in mind is instantly compromised.


  • Dalrymple, Theodore, Lenient Justice Begets Yobs and London Burns, Globe and Mail, August 11, 2011, page A13
  • Doughty, Steve, From now you must jail EVERY burglar, judges will be told, The London Daily Mail Newspaper, May 12, 2011
  • McInerney & Anor v R., [2002] EWCA Crim 3003
  • NOTE 1: law student Marouane Rouhi was one of the rioters arrested in St John's Wood!
  • The Telegraph, Lord Woolf defends burglary policy, January 14, 2003
  • The Telegraph, Lord Woolf's own street hit by crimewave, January 12, 2003

Posted in Crime and Criminal Law, Current Events, Law Enforcement

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