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Judge behind controversial sentencing change for James Bulger’s killers reflects in groundbreaking new podcast

“It was the right decision” says Lord Woolf in episode one of the groundbreaking new series, launching on October 24.

Lord Woolf, the judge who reduced the time to be served by the killers of the toddler James Bulger, insists that he made the right decision and has no regrets.

The comments come as part of a major new podcast series with The University of Law, which launches on October 24.

In the first episode, Lord Woolf says:

“People can reform. I believe there may be some who are so distorted in their view that they never can be released safely but you could not say that of these two young men, Thompson and Venables.”

Lord Woolf, who chaired a landmark report on the riots in Strangeways prison in 1990, also condemns prison overcrowding.

“Undoubtedly I would say we lock up too many people for far too long. “One reason, he agreed, was that too many offenders are jailed for minor offences”. 

Asked if judges should avoid jailing an offender because there were insufficient prison spaces, he added:

“It is the duty of the Government to make sure that there are places where people can go into prison in conditions which …. means they can be punished in a way which is secure, from their point of view, as well as the public’s point of view. So there’s got to be the element of protection and got to be the element of security”.

The remarks of the former Lord Chief Justice come as the government announces measures to ease prison overcrowding, including cutting the sentence lengths of hundreds of offenders and a presumption against jail terms of under 12 months.

Lord Woolf made the controversial decision as Lord Chief Justice that led to the release of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables in 2001, when they reached 18. They had been detained in local authority care units. 

In 1993 the pair, then aged 10, abducted the two-year old James Bulger from a Merseyside shopping centre and tortured and battered him to death in what the trial judge, Mr Justice Morland, called “an act of unparalleled evil and barbarity.”

Lord Woolf’s comments come in an interview as part of a new podcast series: “The Judges: Power, Politics and the People”. The groundbreaking new series is hosted by The University of Law with the journalist and former Times legal editor, Frances Gibb.

Several former Lord Chief Justices will take part in the ground-breaking series.

Thompson and Venables were freed on licence but in 2017 Venables was jailed again for having child abuse images on his computer. A parole board hearing to determine if he can be freed will take place next month (November). 

Lord Woolf adds: “My feeling was that that [transferring the pair to a young offender’s institution] would serve nobody’s purpose, because if they were going to learn, the time had come for them to start showing that they had learned.”

The pair “had their whole life before them and to lock them up for life, when they were kids, would seem to me to be extreme.”

He added: “The fact is that no sentence I could have lawfully and properly passed would have satisfied [the parents of James Bulger] and no doubt if it had been my child that had been killed, I would have felt as strongly as they did. “

Sitting as Lord Chief Justice, the most senior judge in England and Wales, Lord Woolf lowered the minimum term that the killers had to serve - so that they would not have to be moved from their local authority care units into a young offender institution when they reached 18.

The trial judge in 1993, Mr Justice Morland, recommended a minimum term of 8 years, which then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor of Gosforth, raised with a recommendation of ten years. 

It then fell to Lord Woolf to review the tariff which expired in February 2001, and he reduced it - prompting widespread controversy.

The release of Jon Venables, who with Robert Thompson has lifelong anonymity, will be considered in November.

You can watch the interview here or you can listen to the podcast on The University of Law channel which is being streamed on all major services including Spotify and Apple.


Lord Woolf: 

*I always wanted to be a success as a judge…I wouldn’t have been interested in the job if I wasn’t a success.”

*On the sentencing of the two boys convicted of the murder of James Bulger: “People can reform. I believe there may be some who are so distorted in their view that they never can be released safely but you could not say that of these two young men, Thompson and Venables.”

*Gibb: “The last administration under Boris Johnson has been criticised for showing a flagrant disregard for the rule of law. Would you agree?“ Woolf: “I would.” : “That’s damaging, isn’t it, for the justice system as an arm of the constitution?” Woolf: “Yes.”