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 129.

    Why not learn from the US.? Give the criminal a 99-year sentence with possibility of applying for release after 1/3.
    This way :
    1. Not "life sentence"
    2. Possibility of early release
    3. To h..l with the EU lunatics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    I'm gonna put a Pound in a jar for every comment advocating the death penalty.

    It's great, I get to laugh at complete cartoon characters, and the money in the jar should go towards a nice holiday.

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    If this is what freedom and democracy mean, then we need to readdress it. We should not be even asking this question, and the will of the electorate should be upheld. The return of the death penalty.

  • Comment number 126.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    I am seriously concerned about the number of people calling for a return of the death penalty here. I thought we as a country had moved away from that sort of thinking. Take a look around the world please, and you will note where there is the death penalty the murder rate is very high. Where it is abolished, it is always lower. That goes for the rehab of prisoners too. Look to the best systems

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    If the punishment for child abuse, rape, murder, ect is not harsh enough
    then it just promotes people to commit such crimes even more

    Not doing punishments is like legalizing crime
    because there is no consequence

    If someone harms another
    why should they be freed from jail to harm more?

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    115. avalon

    Would you therefore gladly allow people of the ilk of Brady, Sutcliff and Hindley out onto your local neighbourhood?
    Nah, thought not
    Err... no. I'd give them life sentences with a min of 100 years and have them die in jail.

    Incidentally I live in inner city Nottingham. Some of my neighbours probably are killers. Really.

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    Without sounding too Johnny English. I think we should just turn Svalbard into an island prison. I've heard its lovely this time of year....

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    @115.avalon, your point about brady and hindly is unfonded they were never likely to be released, if not for the safety of the public then for thier own safety. In terms of Sutcliffe again hes likely to remain in a mental institution for the rest of his life.

    So I dont see how Peter_Sym is being a hypocrite.

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    There are some who can never ever be allowed back into society.

    There might be a minority who can be rehabilitated.

    The judicial system needs to to be free of political constraints to deal with both scenarios. Like the basis of convictions any possible assessment towards suitability for release should be based on facts; both at the trail and in the future.

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    Life sentences are not wrong in terms of being too harsh, they are wrong for two very different reasons: In contrast to executing killers they are not cost effective to decent upright tax payers, and they meet neither of the perfectly reasonable requirements of revenge and justice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    104. YUG
    Didn't say they were so one should try not to put words into other peoples mouths. Whole life sentences apply to a wide range of things and as neither of us work in the legal sector probably couldn't indicate which are. Actually one could find themselves with a life sentence for a mistake. Think about it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    If you enforce whole life sentences, you effectively give up on that person. The whole point is that prison should act as a punishment, deterrant and means of rehabilitation.

    It may be that some people are beyond help, but you cannot determine that at the point of sentencing. You may as well have the death penalty - it's certainly cheaper but just as wrong.

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    13.A Matter of Time
    'Human rights laws should not apply to prisoners on whole life terms'

    So we can torture or experiment on them? Human rights MUST be rights for all humans including the worst killers. I'm not sure that being able to hope for release is a valid human right though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    Not a bad argument and I can understand why the death penalty was recinded. there were a few people who were hanged who shouldn't have, and therefore your argument for those people are valid.
    Would you therefore gladly allow people of the ilk of Brady, Sutcliff and Hindley out onto your local neighbourhood?
    Nah, thought not

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    108. Frowny Face
    I'd like to know why you can get drunk, kill a teenager with your lorry and get 5 years in prison, but if you steal a million pounds from a billionaire, you'll do 40 years?
    Steal a million from a billionaire & its probably white collar fraud not a shotgun job. If the court can even get a conviction you'll do two years in Ford open prison.

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    Prisons should be about rehabilitation. If you put someone away for life, you're essentially declaring that they will never be a benefit to society. Fine, if you want to make that decision then stick by it and just execute them, stop wasting our tax money on them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    I do not support capital punishment but the whole life tariff simply means that we spend money keeping monsters alive. Where there is no doubt that they are guilty then execute them, not as a punishment but as a practical safety measure for society, to date no one has escaped the grave.

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    A whole-of-life sentence is not enough for some criminals, eg serial murderers and rapists. They should be put to death to save years of imprisonment in comfortable surroundings and enormous cost to the taxpayer.

    For other serious crimes, life should mean life, with no remission whatever. Time and again we hear of repeat offences by criminals who have fooled parole panels that they are cured.

  • Comment number 110.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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