Court of Appeal upholds principle of whole-life prison terms


Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas delivers his ruling at the Court of Appeal

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The Court of Appeal has upheld judges' right to jail the most serious offenders in England and Wales for the rest of their lives.

The court increased a 40-year tariff to a whole-life tariff for murderer Ian McLoughlin, whose trial judge had said he was unable to pass such a sentence.

It also dismissed an appeal by murderer Lee Newell that his whole-life order had been "manifestly excessive".

The European Court of Human Rights had ruled such terms breached human rights.

In July, the European 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.

Tuesday's Court of Appeal ruling was welcomed by the attorney general, the justice secretary and the shadow justice secretary.

Sentencing in a number of high-profile criminal cases - including the terms to be handed out to soldier Lee Rigby's murderers - had been put on hold pending the judgement.

'So heinous'


Today's judgement is pretty stark. On the critical issue of whether whole-life terms were "reducible" and offered prisoners some "hope" and "possibility" of release in exceptional circumstances, the Court of Appeal flatly disagreed with the Grand Chamber of the ECHR.

The nub of the argument concerned the only current means under domestic law for a whole-life term to be reduced. It can only happen if the justice secretary is satisfied that exceptional circumstances exist which can justify a prisoner's release on compassionate grounds.

Existing guidance specifies that the prisoner should be suffering from a terminal illness and that death is likely to occur very shortly. The ECHR thought it was unclear whether the justice secretary would apply this restrictive policy. It didn't regard release purely to die in a hospice or at home as sufficient to represent a "prospect of release", and so represented a breach of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Court of Appeal disagreed. It explained that the justice secretary cannot be restrictive, must take into account all exceptional circumstances relevant to the release of the prisoner on compassionate grounds, and must interpret "compassionate grounds" in accordance with human rights law. The court concluded that meant that the law in England and Wales was clear and did offer both "hope" and the "possibility" of release.

The UK courts have disagreed with Strasbourg before, but rarely in such a clear and unvarnished way. Under the Human Rights Act domestic courts are bound to "take into account" ECHR rulings. Some believe that means, ultimately, "must follow". Today's ruling perhaps marks the start of a far more robust dialogue between the ECHR and our domestic courts.

Under current law, whole-life tariffs can be given for "exceptionally" serious offences. They prevent offenders from ever being eligible for a parole review or release, unless at the discretion of the justice secretary.

In July the ECHR ruled whole-life sentences had to have the possibility of release and, to be compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, there should be some way of having a sentence reviewed after 25 years.

That ruling followed a successful appeal by convicted murderers Jeremy Bamber, Douglas Vinter and Peter Moore.

In the latest Court of Appeal ruling, the panel of five judges found that the Strasbourg court had been wrong when it reached a conclusion that the law of England and Wales did not clearly provide the possibility that a whole-life prison term could ever be reduced.

They said a power of review arose if there were "exceptional circumstances" whereby the offender could appeal to the secretary of state.

"In our judgement the law of England and Wales therefore does provide to an offender 'hope' or the 'possibility' of release in exceptional circumstances which render the just punishment originally imposed no longer justifiable," Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas said.

Lord Thomas said some crimes were "so heinous" that Parliament was entitled to allow whole-life orders "entirely compatibly" with the European Convention on Human Rights.

"Judges should therefore continue as they have done to impose whole-life orders in those rare and exceptional cases," he said.

Newell's lawyers had challenged his whole-life order for murdering child killer Subhan Anwar while already in prison for another killing. Lord Thomas dismissed the appeal, saying the murder had been "premeditated and involved the use of an improvised weapon".

Murderers Ian McLoughlin (L) and Lew Newell (R) Murderers Ian McLoughlin (l) and Lee Newell (r)

Ian McLoughlin killed Graham Buck, 66, in Hertfordshire in 2012, while on prison day-release from another murder sentence. Mr Buck had gone to the aid of a neighbour who was being burgled.

Ruling on the McLoughlin case, the Court of Appeal said the sentencing judge had been "in error" in thinking he did not have the power to make a whole-life order in the wake of the Strasbourg court's ruling.

What is a whole-life tariff?

  • Offenders who receive a whole-life tariff cannot be released other than at the discretion of the justice secretary on compassionate grounds - for example, if they are terminally ill or seriously incapacitated
  • They are not eligible for a parole review or release
  • However, prisoners can have their sentence reduced on appeal
  • The sentence is reserved for offenders judged to be the most dangerous to society
  • 53 people are currently serving whole-life tariffs
  • These include the Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe and Moors Murderer Ian Brady
  • Serial killer Rosemary West is the only woman currently serving a whole-life sentence
  • The most recent murderers to receive the sentence are Mark Bridger, who killed five-year-old April Jones, and Dale Cregan, who murdered two police officers

Lord Thomas said the seriousness of the case - which had been referred to the Court of Appeal by Attorney General Dominic Grieve - was "exceptionally high" and 40 years was unduly lenient.

Reacting to Tuesday's ruling, Mr Grieve said he was "pleased".

He said he had not thought the Strasbourg court said anything "which prevented our courts from handing down whole-life terms in the most serious cases".

"Today's judgement gives the clarity our judges need when they are considering sentencing cases like this in the future," he said.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling also welcomed the decision as upholding the law that the UK Parliament had passed.

Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said: "Judges should be able to lock up for life those guilty of the most horrible crimes and it was a Labour government that gave them this power.

"We now need the government to make a considered response to the Strasbourg judgement and Labour is willing to work with ministers to get the right result."

However, Simon Creighton, solicitor for convicted murderer Douglas Vinter, called the decision "troubling" and said it was "fundamental" that prison sentences had "some form of rehabilitation and redemption" built in. His client was "not expecting" to be released but wanted "something to work towards", he added.

Manuel Fernandez, whose sister was killed by her partner, backs whole-life prison terms

There are currently 53 prisoners on whole-life terms in England and Wales, including Moors Murderer Ian Brady and serial killer Rosemary West.

In December the judge in the Lee Rigby murder trial said he would wait for the decision by the Court of Appeal before passing sentence on Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, who were convicted in December of killing Fusilier Rigby in Woolwich, south-east London, in May last year.

The killers will be sentenced at the Old Bailey on 26 February at 14:00 GMT, a Judicial Office spokeswoman has confirmed.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Wow - some common sense from a UK judge.

    Of course the ECHR will never like it but thankfully I live in the UK and not in Europe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    @8. the enforcer
    I would rather see the death penalty reintroduced, as a tax payer it is the cheaper option and in many cases more appropriate as some of the people in prison for murder deserve it.
    And would you feel the same if it was you or a close relative who had been incorrectly judged to be guilty of murder?

    Thought not. Think before posting.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    This is a bad idea.

    The possibility of parole is a useful tool for keeping prisoners under control and on better behaviour.

    With that gone, and their realization that they face life behind bars regardless of their actions, lifers become a considerably greater threat to both their fellow prisoners and prison wardens.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    At last! a bit of common sense! Now all they have to do is enforce it...

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    If you kill someone you should forfeit the right to freedom for the rest of your life. Imprisoning someone for 'life' then letting them out 10 years later doesn't sound like 'life' to me.

    Human rights go both ways - it's not just about the criminal; it's about time the rights of the victim were considered.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    #2 Problem is not all murders are equally bad:

    Do you think this woman:
    "A 75 year woman accused of killing her 83-year-old husband who was suffering from a terminal illness has pleaded guilty to his murder."

    Is as evil as say Myra Hindley?

    The US justice system isn't great but I like their murder 1, murder 2 classes

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    This will affect a very small amount of convicts - but the worse kind & for that its the right decision.

    As a society we have moved on from the death penalty & life in prison is the best way forward.

    Who cares about the cost when people are safe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I keeping reading about how the ECHR is so concerned about the rights of serious criminals, how about taking an interest in the rights of the victims for a change?

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    It would be an improvement if ALL Life sentences were served in full, preferably with hard labour for murderers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    British courts having the final say on what happens to criminals convicted of murders that were committed on British soil, regardless of what the ECHR says. I find that entirely reasonable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Price shouldn't even be a question.

    Since when has it been a good idea to let the state kill its own citizens because it's cheaper?

    It's a matter of principle.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Court of Appeal upholds principle of whole-life prison terms and so they should it is up to our legal service and no one else.
    Our rights are being withered away by unelected people in Europe.
    If we and voted for this fair enough but it was sold to us 40 years ago as free trading not this Mega State out of control not voted by any citizens. of Europe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    A sound judgement showing our legal system is our own and cannot be dictated to by eurocrats.
    There are crimes that warrant full life terms and they should be served accordingly after all normal appeals procedures within our system.
    Victims and their families/friends have rights too. Its good to see our judicial systems taking that into account more fully these days.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    #4 Yes Stefan Kiszko, an innocent man framed by bent cops for the murder of a little girl would have had plenty of time to say goodbye before he was wrongfully executed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    How many graves are you supposed to dig when you set out for

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.


    This is outragous, it is against my human rights to hold me in a stinky prison like a caged animal. Who do they think they are!!!????

    What about those of us in prison now, do we get our sentances increased?????

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    1.You Aint Seen Me Right
    Why does ECHR place the Human Rights of those people who have been tried, found guilty and convicted above those of the victim?
    It doesn't. It only says that convicted criminals also have rights. Dion't they?

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Its worrying that we found this decision a surprise as it shows how absolutely awful their judgements normally are. Well done though to them for delivering on this one

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    I would rather see the death penalty reintroduced, as a tax payer it is the cheaper option and in many cases more appropriate as some of the people in prison for murder deserve it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Whole life sentences will cost us taxpayers a fortune when all we need to spend money on is a few lengths of stout rope.


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