HE has sentenced thousands of criminals and gained a reputation for sending many of them to prison, but Oxford’s most formidable judge remains haunted by a child killer he once defended.

Judge Anthony King retired yesterday and spoke candidly about a legal career spanning more than 45 years.

The 69-year-old described his job as one you “cannot get bored with” but said his chief concern upon hanging up his wig is that more cost-cutting could lead to “a serious inadequacy in the system”.

Recalling the trial he will never forget he said: “I have one case on my conscience as a barrister which I think I shall carry with me to the grave.

“I was defending a man for child sex abuse.

“He had a record of abusing very young children but as the law was in those days the child was so young she couldn’t give evidence against him and he was acquitted, and acquitted more than once.

“The rule is if a defendant admits guilt to his barrister, the barrister cannot represent him as not guilty. This man, though I personally believed otherwise, staunchly claimed to be innocent.

“After his acquittal he went out and murdered a child.

“It very much brought home to me that though I was doing my job, in that particular case things were terribly wrong.”

Judge King was brought up in Bristol and attended Winchester College before reading law at Worcester College, Oxford, because he “loved arguing”.

The grandfather-of-three, who plans to spend his retirement fly-fishing and tending his garden, became a circuit judge in 1993 and began sitting on the Oxford circuit in the late 1990s.

Since then he has become the one Oxford judge criminals fear above all others.

He said: “I think my reputation is probably a fair one. I think my reputation is for being tougher on sentence than other judges.

“Justice shouldn’t depend on the individual who is responsible for administering it.

“But if those who have breached the law consider they get a fair trial before me but at the same time are not enthusiastic to face me on sentence I am very happy with that.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the answer to whether he believes in prison is “no”.

“Prison to me is a necessary, I won’t say evil, but a necessary function of the law,” he continued.

“I look at it in very simple terms. It seems to me we have to have criminal law, otherwise we would live in chaos.

“We cannot permit private individuals to administer their own punishment for actual or believed breaches of the law otherwise a vendetta society would be rife.

“But having said that I would much prefer that there was a form of punishment which was constructive and prevented re-offending.”

Turning to the future, Judge King said: “I think the system generally is much better than it was when I started.

“Where I find problems is that the volume of work is hugely increased since I started and the difficulties of administering justice is hugely increased, both from the point of view of police availability and the cutbacks in resources through the Ministry of Justice.

“All of which means that all the agencies involved are under very great pressure, and, understandably, there are priorities.”

He warned: “But if things don’t change in the foreseeable future there may be a serious inadequacy in the system.”