Whole-life terms 'not wrong in principle', court hears

Prison European judges ruled last year that whole-life tariffs breached human rights

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Whole-life terms for some killers are "not manifestly excessive or wrong in principle", the Court of Appeal heard.

A lawyer for the attorney general said it would be "unduly lenient" not to impose a whole-life term if justified by the "seriousness of the offending".

The Court of Appeal is considering if such sentences are still legal, with a decision due at a later date.

Last year the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled the sentences must be reviewed at some point.

But the UK government says whole-life tariffs are "wholly justified in the most heinous cases".

James Eadie QC, representing Attorney General Dominic Grieve QC, said that the Court of Appeal had already set out very clear principles and guidance on how whole-life orders could be imposed.

He said the ECtHR judgement did not remove the right of judges to impose a whole-life term - it only raised a question for the state as to whether there should be a later review.

This appeal really matters because of its legal and political implications. In the wake of last year's European court ruling, some trial judges are no longer clear whether they can still lock up an offender and throw away the key - so it's the Court of Appeal's role to set new guidance.

That guidance will take into account what Parliament has said about the issue, case law down the years, and consider whether Strasbourg has any role to play in the matter.

The political implications are clear: Prime Minister David Cameron has already said that he profoundly disagreed with Strasbourg's ruling on this matter - even though its judges said they accepted the principle of a whole-life sentence.

If the Court of Appeal were to rule that Europe was right - that could lead to more appeals from the worst killers in jail - and an even bigger row with Europe.

"There is no problem," he said. "Whole-life orders are not in principle or nature incompatible [with the European Convention of Human Rights].

"There is no basis for interfering with these sentences."

Controversial ruling

The Court of Appeal is considering three cases.

Lee Newell, who murdered child killer Subhan Anwar, while already in prison for another killing. The judges are also set to correct the record regarding murderer and rapist Matthew Thomas, who was incorrectly told after his trial that he had been given a whole-life sentence.

The attorney general is separately asking the court to give a third murderer, Ian McLoughlin, a whole-life order.

The ECtHR, in Strasbourg, ruled last year that whole-life orders were a breach of human rights, following a successful appeal by murderers Jeremy Bamber, Douglas Vinter and Peter Moore.

The court said that while it accepted whole life orders could be justified, there should nevertheless be some way of having imprisonment reviewed after 25 years.

That decision prompted the judge dealing with McLoughlin to sentence him to life with a minimum term of 40 years, rather than a whole-life term.

Speaking after the hearing, Mr Grieve said: "This hearing was about preserving the principle that whole life orders can be imposed for particularly heinous and serious crimes. I asked the Court of Appeal to look again at the sentence handed down to Ian McLoughlin as I believed the sentencing judge mistakenly took into account a decision of the European Court of Human Rights which is inconsistent with the domestic legislation and case law by which he was bound.

"I believed the seriousness of this case required a whole life order because McLoughlin had a previous conviction for manslaughter in 1984, a conviction for murder in 1992, and because the murder for which he was being sentenced was committed in the course of robbery."

The outcome of the appeals could determine the future direction of sentencing for the most serious killers in England and Wales, as well as have an impact on the 52 prisoners currently on whole-life terms. It may also affect the men convicted of murdering Fusilier Lee Rigby. Their sentencing has been postponed until after the outcome of this appeal.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    Whole life sentence should mean what it says.If someone has taken anothers life and it has been prooven then they should serve the term.Personally i would reintroduce the Death Penalty as these heinous people are a drain on society.But that will never happen,and legal people can continue to coin it in

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    It won't deter people killing but at least it keeps them off the streets and the public a bit safer

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    We live in a democracy. It is for our elected MPs to decide what is right or wrong by the creation of laws reflecting the wishes of society. That is democracy. It is not for a judge to decide if whole life tariffs are right or wrong. Judges should not be making law in our society. We decide via elected representatives.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    please don't put this on HYS, the hang em high club will have a field day!

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    The concept of universal human rights is one of civilisation's finest moments. These people may be monsters, but it is a measure of us as a society as to how they are treated. A periodic review is not unreasonable - nobody is proposing a re-trial. If they are still a danger and unreformed then the review will simply confirm that they must remail in jail.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    Compulsory helpful labour for society whilst imprisoned. Additional time for any refusing. Far less benefits for prisoners including access to TV and socialising with other prisoners etc etc Far more stringent monitoring; NO days out EVER

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    Ok then, start giving out maximum sentences for all charges brought against them (because in most cases there are multiple charges) and make them run consecutively instead of concurrently. Problem solved.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    I don't want us to leave Europe but I really want to get rid of that Human Rights nonsense. Treat people fairly. Be nice. End of.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    The justice system must protect the public from wrongdoers, and if necessary put them in prison indefinitely. It should also - if possible - correct the criminal. But punishment does not work, witness the huge prison population. If anything, punishment makes them worse.

    Punishment is savagery, and it is about time Britain became civilized.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    @ 11.

    Would you honestly trade the freedom to enjoy the outdoors, see your family and pursue your own interests for a massively restricted, albeit relatively easy, "life"?

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    Well said on the guildford 4 and birmingham 6, this has long been my argument against the death penalty, we can never ever be 100% certain.
    Whole life tarriff at least allows some element of hope if there is a miscarriage of justice

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    Guidelines according to schedule 21 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003:

    - A whole-life order for "exceptionally" serious offences

    Does this mean that now that Bieber is in custody we can throw away the key?

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    I don't understand why there seems to be so many bitter people who will immediately ignore the issue being discussed and vent their hatred of the Tory party or the USA, on any matter.

    The real issue here is who has the final say over our Justice system, Europe or the UK.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    This issue seems to divide people on whether they think prison should be about reforming criminals, or just a place to put bad people so they're out of the way of society.
    Considering the latter is popular in the USA, where they have the largest prison population per head in the world & far worse reoffending rates than the UK, it's clearly not the best solution.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    So, don't sentance them to "whole life" as defined by EUHR but sentance to fixed 100 years as in USA.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    The death penalty is wrong, but is it against ECHR regulations to provide a nice high sturdy hook and length of rope in each of these whole lifers cells?

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    This hatred for prisoners seems tragic. Most prisoners are disturbed individuals, even if not clinically so, and some can never return, (inc. Mark Bridger) on safety grounds, including their own. Removal from the world is punishment in itself, the more profound with each passing day, and protection, from revenge, for example, is the minimum state responsibility.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    Prison is outdated, and it costs a fortune to keep criminals incarcerated.
    I think the crims should be surgically implanted with a hard wored RFID chip in a place where it can't be easily torn out or screened. A cheap reader could then be used for everyone to see who they were dealing with.
    It would restore shame and ridicule for undertaking criminal acts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    All sentencing should be based on actual outcomes. If it takes one month under a particular scheme to reform a particular type of offender, that is what should be offered.

    If it takes thirty years to reform someone else, then that is what you go for.

    Too much sentencing and punishment is based on what will get the politicians votes rather than actually what makes society a better and safer place

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    A life term needs to mean LIFE. The 25 year old mother who murdered her baby and sent for life today needs to be sent for actual life - but she will be out before she is 40 on 'good behaviour'. Calum didn't have a chance at life. Sure have a review every 15-25 years or so, as the individual may need to be sent to another facility. But they must serve their full term. That will mean larger prisons


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