Murderer Arthur Hutchinson in first whole-life tariff appeal

Arthur Hutchinson Arthur Hutchinson was jailed in 1984 for killing three people

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A triple murderer has become the first Briton to challenge his whole-life tariff following a ruling last month by European judges that the sentence breaches human rights.

Arthur Hutchinson, 73, who murdered the parents and brother of a bride hours after her wedding in 1983, appealed to the European Court of Human Rights.

The Strasbourg court ruled in July that it was "inhuman and degrading" to never have any possibility of parole.

Ministers have criticised the ruling.

'Absurd' ruling

The initial challenge was brought by Jeremy Bamber, who shot dead five members of his family in 1985, and two other killers.

The three are among a group of 49 people in England and Wales serving whole-life tariffs. They cannot be released other than at the discretion of the justice secretary on compassionate grounds.

But judges from the court's upper chamber ruled by 16 to one that such sentences had to be reviewed at some point.

The government cannot appeal against the ruling, which applies in England and Wales, but it now has six months to consider its response. Hutchinson's action will not be considered during that period.

Following the decision in July, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said he profoundly disagreed with the ruling and called for reforms to human rights laws.

Analysis

Bearing in mind the government has six months to react to the July judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, Arthur Hutchinson's action may be seen as somewhat opportunistic, but it raises some significant issues.

Firstly, it keeps up pressure on the government to respond to the judgment and introduce a system of review for those serving whole-life tariffs. That is clearly something ministers do not want to do.

It also focuses attention on what the government's response to Strasbourg might be. When the Home Secretary used to set whole-life tariffs there was a review after 25 years had been served. That system was effectively abolished under the Criminal Justice Act 2003.

Any new system of review is problematic, both legally and politically.

If the government decided to reinstate a 25 year review for 'whole lifers', there could be further legal challenges.

Some murderers are given long, but not 'whole life' tariffs.

The Soham murderer Ian Huntley was given a minimum term of 40 years - which he must serve before becoming eligible for parole. If a new system allowed 'whole lifers' a 25 year review of their sentence, those like Huntley might argue they too should be entitled to a review.

They might argue that to deny them a 25 year review amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment.

A legal challenge of that kind would lead to huge public concern.

"To be told this breaches human rights is absurd... What about the rights of the victims and their families?" he said.

"I continue to strongly believe that whole life tariffs are appropriate for the worst murder cases."

'Hugely problematic'

Hartlepool-born Hutchinson stabbed to death Basil Laitner, his wife Avril and son Richard at their home in Dore, Sheffield. He also repeatedly raped a wedding guest.

The judge at his original trial at Sheffield Crown Court in 1984 ruled that he should serve 18 years but the-then home secretary Leon Brittan later ruled he should face the whole-life tariff.

Five years ago, Hutchinson had a domestic appeal against whole life tariffs kicked out by the Court of Appeal.

Meanwhile, the Daily Telegraph reported that the government had been asked to provide a full response to Hutchinson's latest claim, and that a full hearing could take place next year.

The newspaper said that if the claim was backed, Hutchinson could be released from prison.

BBC legal affairs correspondent Clive Coleman said Hutchinson's legal challenge raised the prospect that others serving whole-life terms could challenge their sentences.

It also put pressure on the government to respond to last month's ruling by the European court's grand chamber and introduce a system of review for those serving whole-life tariffs, he said.

Ministers previously had the power to review such sentences after 25 years, but this was abolished in 2003.

Our correspondent added that Hutchinson's action could prove hugely problematic for the government if other prisoners serving long sentences - such as Soham killer Ian Huntley, who is serving 40 years - then argued it was wrong for those on whole-life tariffs to have a system of review, while they did not.

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