Whole life sentences – UK rulings

A recent appeal court ruling has stated that whole life sentences can still be imposed by judges in England and Wales for the most serious cases of murder. Here we look at what this decision means, and how it affects future cases.

Although previously the European court of human rights had ruled that whole life sentences must be capable of being reviewed after 25 years, the Court of Appeal found that Judges in England and Wales were still able to impose whole life tariffs for the most serious cases of murder.

In the case of the murder of soldier Lee Rigby, Michael Adebolajo aged 29 has been handed a whole life sentence, and Michael Adebowale aged 22, has received a life sentence with the stipulation that he must serve at least 45 years.  Although the pair had been found guilty in December, sentencing was delayed by Mr Justice Sweeney until after a landmark appeal court decision that has stated that whole life prison terms can still be imposed by judges in England and Wales.  

European Court of Human Rights Ruling

Last July the European Court of Human Rights had ruled that the lack of a formal review mechanism of the whole life sentences handed to Jeremy Bamber, Peter Moore and Douglas Vintner meant that the sentences were inhumane and degrading as they offered no prospect of release. Such sentences had to be reviewed at some stage, after 25 years.

Currently release of whole-life term prisoners can happen only under circumstances in which the justice secretary considers that there are exceptional circumstances that justify release on compassionate grounds.

Guidelines specify that such exceptional circumstances would be a situation in which a prisoner has a terminal illness and that he or she is expected to die in the near future. While the European court of human rights believed that it was unclear that the justice secretary would restrict release to those specific circumstances, it didn’t consider that the prospect of being released to a hospice in order to die was an adequate prospect of release, and so contravened the European Convention on Human Rights.

Court of Appeal disagrees

At the Court of Appeal, the lord chief justice along with the rest of the panel of five judges determined that the European court of human rights was incorrect in stating that British law prevented whole life prisoners from any possibility of ever being released, and stated that in exceptional circumstances that power was clearly in place.

It said that the justice secretary was unable to restrict release to those circumstances specified in the guidelines; that he has to take account of all of the relevant exceptional circumstances; and that the interpretation of compassionate grounds could only be accordance with laws on human rights. Thus the law was clear and offered hope along with the possibility of release.

Chris Grayling the justice secretary stated that he agreed with the appeal court ruling saying “Our courts should be able to send the most brutal murderers to jail for the rest of their lives”. He added that he thought British people would be pleased that the courts have upheld UK law passed by parliament.

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Posted in: Criminal defence

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