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 149.

    The death penalty needs to be reinstated. No-ne in the judicial system, nor, the government cares one iota about victims and it is long past the time they got to grips with reality. When judges sit in their pomposity I do not believe that any one of them has the intelligence to take-in what is in court before them and just why thugs, rapists, and murderers are there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    My objection is not the specifics of this proposed change, but the insistence by UK politicians that Britain should always look to America for ideas.

    As a Brit living in the US, I can tell you this is a mistake. The US prison industry (yes, it is one) and judicial system is terribly broken. Policies are enacted based on primitive emotional responses towards issues without any regard for evidence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    For example the Muslim extremists who beheaded the young soldier Rigby on the streets of London in broad daylight

    His family will never see him again and he will never get to live his life

    So why should they get to see their families or live their lives
    when they took that away from somebody else?

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    I agree with whole life sentences, there should just be no more than a month or two between the sentence and death.

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    Okay so drop life sentence release them and allow them to take their chance on the street.

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    Being stuck in jail for the rest of your life is way worse than getting the death penalty. Look at Ian Brady. To give him the death penalty would be to bend to his will. His life currently is awful, grim and unbearable to him. Which is what he deserves.

    The threat of death penalties and harsh sentences have done little to reduce violent crime in the States.

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    I'd like to see victims or families of victims of violent crime having a greater opportunity to decide the final fate when it comes to parole assessment...

    I think that if someone killed a relative of mine and they'd served 8 years of a 12 year sentence I would like to have a big say on the judgement on that rehabilitation assessment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    I think people who commit crimes should be sent on a one-way trip to mars. Give them a fair chance to start again like.

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    @98. mayfield

    A long sentence for the murder of a police officer, compared to a shorter sentence for the murder of you or me, means precisely that human life in the eyes of the law is not equal and police are worth more intrinsically.

    If 30 years for the murder of a policeman, it should be 30 years for the murder of a person.

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    If they were swinging from a rope we could save 30 years of prison expenses.

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    More pandering to the gutter press by this govt. Why aren't the leaders of our so called religious groups not condemning this? It is inhumane and immoral.

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    I do believe in whole life terms for those very few individuals whose acts are so depraved that they cannot be trusted to return to society. In this I disagree with the European Court, but that does not mean that I want us to pull out of it, rather that we should seek to use our considerable influence with regards to European Law, so that they are subject to what we want as much as we are to them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    lots of mark downs I see on the post supporting this lots of hand wringing ! the barrister quotes you are sentencing them to die in prison lets ask how many innocent lives must be snuffed out ? how many murders should someone be allowed to commit before they are bang up and the key thrown away ? how much innocent blood must these liberal have on their hands before these beast are removed from us

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    I'm pleased that people like Sutcliffe, Brady, Raymond Morris all have whole life sentences, I'm also pleased that Hindley is dead. When I look at the innocent smiling faces of their poor victims, who did no wrong except to be butchered by this scum, I feel sick to the stomach that you and I are still paying to keep these in jail.

    Come back Pierrepoint !

  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    I would prefer to see very long sentences given to the most evil killers (such as 60 to 100 years or more) instead of whole life sentences with no time limit. In reality, they're both the same but ethically (and legally) time limits are far superior.

  • Comment number 134.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    I'm sure the holier than thou liberal BBC would find it soul destroying but I see nothing wrong with capital punishment. When we send in the army we are using the threat of capital punishment. I'm sure leafy middle class suburbia would disagree and liberal one world eco cafe London.

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    Some people carry out acts that are so manifestly evil be it a multiple murder or a single murder in exceptional circumstances that letting them free in the future, must never be an option.

    In the absence of a death penalty, a whole life sentence is the only alternative.

  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    112. HughR

    Dude how can you say "I do not support capital punishment"

    and then follow it with "Where there is no doubt that they are guilty then execute them".

    Just doesn't make sense... you're clearly on the other side of the fence to what you thought you were when you started writing your post...

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    Life should mean exactly that. Capital punishment for those found guilty, perhaps. To save money for the taxpayer.
    I wonder how many who would disagree have had first hand experience of a loved one murdered, only to see the perpetrator being let out after 12-15 years.
    Well done to the spineless ones...


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