Cherie Blair’s legal ruling lands her in controversy

By Venkata Vemuri, IANS,

London : Cherie Blair, wife of former British prime minister Tony Blair, is at the centre of a controversy involving an alleged cover-up by a judicial body of her actions as a judicial servant in a court case.

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The Office of Judicial Complaints (OJC), which probes complaints against judges, had launched an investigation into a case Cherie Booth, as she was professionally known, handled in which she reportedly decided to hand down a lenient sentence to a convicted person on the grounds that he was “religious”.

The complaining body, the National Secular Society (NSS), argued that a person’s religious conviction should not be used as a mitigating factor during sentencing.

According to the case records, Cherie, who is a Queen’s Counsel, was sitting as a recorder in London’s Inner Crown Court and sentencing Shamso Miah, who had fractured a man’s jaw in a fight. In her summation, Cherie explained that she was giving Miah a two-year suspended sentence instead of a six-month jail term because he was “a religious person” who had not been in trouble before.

On June 10, the OJC said in a release that an investigation by the Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice had concluded that Cherie’s “observations did not constitute judicial misconduct” and that “no disciplinary action” was necessary.

However, The Independent newspaper got hold of another letter to the NSS by an OJC caseworker who claimed that the complaint had in fact been “partially substantiated” and that, while no disciplinary action was needed, Cherie would receive “informal advice from a senior judge”.

The newspaper published a key paragraph that was not included in the statement released to the public: “The Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice have expressed some concern about the impact Recorder Booth [sic] comments may have had on the public perception of the judiciary and the sentencing process.

“All judges must, of course, be very mindful of how they express themselves when dealing with sensitive issues of equality and diversity so as not to create the impression that some individuals can expect more leniency than others.”

NSS executive director Keith Porteous Wood has now accused the OJC of deliberately burying the full details of the investigation.

“This has the feeling of a cover-up. Why did the OJC put out such a partial and misleading statement about this case? Why didn’t it make clear that there were concerns about Recorder Booth’s comments? Then it tried to silence the complainants by heading its letter to the NSS as ‘Restricted’ – not to be copied to a wider audience.”

An OJC spokesperson said the Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice are able to give formal advice to any judicial office holder if they consider it appropriate.

“Such advice is not a formal sanction and does not constitute disciplinary action and, as a matter of course, when advice is given it is not made public.”

The OJC declined to release the papers of the investigation into Cherie for public scrutiny, saying they were covered by the Data Protection Act.

(Venkata Vemuri can be contacted at [email protected])