Court of Appeal questions Human Rights Court ruling on whole life sentences

Recently, Access Solicitor reported on a case to be heard in the Court of Appeal, concerning whether murderers can continue to be given life sentences without any possibility of being released early.

In July 2013, in the case of Vinter, the European Court of Human Rights found that when a whole life sentence is given to those found guilty of a crime, there must be a prospect of release and a possibility of review for release from the prison. The Court found that rules for the punishment of criminals must be balanced against Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights (freedom from torture and inhumane and degrading treatment).

However, in rhe Court of Appeal, Lord Justice Thomas, the Lord Chief Justice, concluded that the very worst murderers should never be released from prison. He found that the European Court had misunderstood English law, which did give life prisoners possibilities of release on compassionate grounds. He referred to section 30 of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997, which gives the secretary of state the power to release a life prisoner on licence if satisfied that there are exceptional circumstances which justify the release on compassionate grounds.

The European Court was anxious about the setting out of prison service orders. Lord Justice Thomas added that the Court was wrong to see the "highly restrictive conditions" for being considered for compassionate release as an issue because the secretary of state had to exercise the power in accordance with Article 3 of the European Convention.

Therefore, he argued, "the law of England and Wales does provide an offender hope, or the possibility of release, in exceptional circumstances just as [the] European Convention on Human Rights demands”.

It is believed that, with his decision, the possibility of yet another conflict between the government and the human rights court has been avoided.

The Justice Secretary – currently Chris Grayling - will now have to consider, on an individual basis, each application by a whole-lifer for release on licence because of exceptional circumstances. According to the Court of Appeal, on compassionate grounds has a wide meaning and can no longer be confined to terminally ill prisoners. His decisions will be subject to the courts' scrutiny. 

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