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/ 21 Mar 2014

Court of Appeal rules on Whole Life Orders

Last month the Court of Appeal upheld the use of whole life orders having dismissed the suggestion that this sentence is not compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

The case follows the judgment from the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in July 2013; in Vinter v UK three complainants argued that the whole life orders were contrary to Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Douglas Vinter, Jeremy Bamber and Peter Moore were all convicted of murder and given whole life sentences. They argued that, by providing no hope or prospect of release, a whole life sentence amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment.

In Vinter v UK, the ECtHR stressed that there are good reasons for detention – punishment, public protection and rehabilitation – but that these reasons are not necessarily static and can change over time. The ECtHR held that for a whole life sentence to be compatible with Article 3, there had to be a possibility of review and release. Section 30(1) of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 provides that prisoners serving whole life sentences can only be released at the discretion of the Secretary of State on the basis of compassionate grounds if the prisoner in question is terminally ill or severely incapacitated. The ECtHR judged that section 30(1) is not sufficient in providing a dedicated review mechanism for whole life orders.

The Court of Appeal disagreed with this when passing their judgment in respect of the sentences given to two convicted murderers – Ian McLoughlin and Lee Newell. Following a referral from the Attorney General, Mr McLoughlin’s sentence was increased to a whole life sentence after the Court of Appeal found his 40 year tariff to be too lenient. Mr Newell had his appeal dismissed having challenged his whole life term on the basis that it was ‘manifestly excessive’.

Court of Appeal judges drew a distinction in the ECtHR judgment outlining that the sentence itself was not held incompatible with Article 3 just that the policy in place to reduce and review such a sentence was contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights. Despite this distinction the Court of Appeal held the view that there is a sufficient review mechanism in place; section 30(1) of the Crime (Sentences) Act is adequate in providing a prisoner with hope of release in exceptional circumstances. Their judgment highlighted that some crimes were ‘so heinous’ that UK laws allowing whole life orders were just and fair in the circumstances.

Several sentencing hearings had been postponed until after the Court of Appeal had passed judgment on this issue. Subsequently, Michael Adebolajo – one of the two men convicted of killing Lee Rigby – and Joanna Dennehy received whole life sentences. A total of 51 people are currently serving whole life orders in the UK.

Jade Goveia, Criminal Paralegal at Hanne & Co.

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