Public criticism of Sweeney's sentence voiced by Home Secretary John Reid prompted the House of Commons Constitutional Affairs Committee to recommend that the Ministerial Code be amended with guidelines to govern the public comments of ministers about individual judges to reinforce the provisions within the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. The Committee wrote: "The Sweeney case was the first big test of whether the new relationship between the Lord Chancellor [i.e. Lord Falconer] and the judiciary was working properly, and it is clear that there was a systemic failure." In 2008, Lord Phillips, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, announced that in response to "widespread inaccurate media coverage" of Sweeney's sentencing, five judges were being trained to be the first official media spokesmen for the judiciary.
Craig Sweeney was found guilty of the abduction and sexual assault of a three-year-old girl. He was known to the victim's family, whom he had befriended weeks before the crime. Sweeney was released on licence in late 2005 after serving a term in jail for indecently assaulting a six-year-old in April 2003. While on licence, he was accused of inappropriately touching a child's bottom, but the police and probation workers did not return him to prison, despite his "risk of harm" being raised to "high".
Sweeney abducted the girl on 2 January 2006, two days after his licence had expired. He drove her to his Newport flat where he was living on licence. He was caught the day after, when he crashed his car during a high-speed chase initiated after Sweeney jumped a red light. The girl, who was in the crash with him, survived with minor injuries.
Sweeney admitted four charges of kidnapping, three of sexual assault and one of dangerous driving. His defence counsel said he had "shown remorse when arrested and was distressed at the depravity at what he had done".
He was sentenced to life in prison with a tariff of 12 years, and would be eligible to be considered for parole after five years and 108 days from the date of sentence. The judge stated (as he was required to do) that the sentence that he would have imposed (but did not - he imposed a life sentence) if he had passed a determinate sentence would have been one of 12 years. The law required the judge to do this (whether he wanted to or not) so that the judge could set the date after which Sweeney could apply for parole. He was not in any way suggesting that Sweeney would be granted parole then - or indeed ever. The judge said that the appropriate sentence after trial would have been 18 years. From that he deducted one third because of Sweeney's co-operation with the police and his guilty plea at the first opportunity. Had there been a determinate sentence of 12 years (rather than the life sentence in fact imposed) Sweeney would have been released on licence after 6 years. From that the judge deducted the time Sweeney had spent in custody awaiting trial. That meant that Sweeney could not be considered for parole until he had served the five years and 108 days. On 10 July 2006, it was decided that the case would not be referred to the Court of Appeal, as the sentence had been calculated in accordance with the legislation enacted by the then current Labour government. The victim's mother said she was "Gut-wrenchingly sick" at the decision.
The sentence created a moderate controversy in Wales probably largely because it was reported that the sentence was "less than six years" when in fact the sentence had been "life imprisonment". John Reid has called the sentence 'unduly lenient'. Then Prime Minister Tony Blair has backed Reid with his criticism. Nick Clegg said it was "rank hypocrisy for John Reid to blame judges for sentences which are a direct consequence of recent legislation introduced by this government". Lord Morris of Aberavon QC, attorney general in the late 1990s, said he would have been "extremely annoyed" by Reid's intervention. Ex-High Court judge Sir Oliver Popplewell said: "I think it's unwise for the home secretary to poke his nose into legal affairs." Lord Ramsbotham urged Blair "to shut up" and accused him of enacting policy changes which caused more problems than they solved. The girl's mother has called for tougher sentences.
- Masterman, Roger (2011). "The independence of the judiciary". The Separation of Powers in the Contemporary Constitution: Judicial Competence and Independence in the United Kingdom. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. p. 224. ISBN 978-0-521-49337-6. Retrieved 7 February 2011.
- House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution (26 July 2007), "Chapter 5: Conclusions and Recommendations", Relations between the executive, the judiciary and Parliament (pdf), London: The Stationery Office Limited, p. 54, retrieved 7 February 2011
- Gibb, Frances (3 April 2008). "Faith in legal system vanishing, says judge". The Sunday Times. Retrieved 7 February 2011.
- "Child sex snatch jailing 'insult'". BBC News. 12 June 2006. Retrieved 2007-01-31.
- "Paedophile report demands changes". BBC News. 19 December 2006. Retrieved 2007-03-08.
- "Gut-Wrenchingly Sick". Sky News. 10 July 2006. Retrieved 2007-01-31.
- "Reid attacks child sex sentence", BBC News, 12 June 2006. Retrieved on 2007-02-28.
- "Blair backs Reid sentence attack", BBC News, 13 June 2006. Retrieved on 28 February 2007.
- "Sweeney victim mother speaks out", BBC News, 19 June 2006. Retrieved on 28 February 2007.