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 46.

    just hang them . pinko's will have a fit. they believe because they don't want capitol punishment , no one does. don't bet on it. if they gave us a vote , hanging would start the day after.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    How many times are we going to allow the EU and ECHR to dictate to us what we can and cannot do to terrorists, murderers and rapist based on their human rights.

    It's so easily solved...

    You have 100% human rights... Until you knowingly violate someone else's, at that moment in time you waive your right by choice to these rights and the courts will deal with you.

    Lawmakers, do you not get this?

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    It's entirely reasonable that there's a standard procedure in place to review an offender's sentence after 25 years no matter what they've done. The sentence will practically always be upheld - birdmen of Alcatraz are very rare - but a just society should not have a "throw away the key" policy. Judges are human - they can be wrong, and there must be a safety mechanism.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    Surely in order to prevent the ECHR from meddling in our justice system in the future then our Courts should be given the power by Parliament to hand down fixed term sentences of say 99 years with no parole and no remission. I'm sure something similar is already done in the USA which is fortunate to not be part of that dreadful ECHR.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Most murderers are just misunderstood. The sooner we learn this as a society the better. Whole-life prison terms ARE NOT the answer!

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    -An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    4 i see no problem
    Too many mistakes made. People convicted of murder who turn out to be innocent. (not necessarily 'nice' people, but innocent never the less). Some found to be innocent after they are dead. Does this bother you?

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    ECHR should take a step back and get some perspective...maybe start by focusing on the worst abuses globally and sorting those out first to gain some credibility and much needed public support!

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    @1.You Aint Seen Me Right
    Why does ECHR place the Human Rights [...] above those of the victim?
    It doesn't, because they're in prison (i.e. they've had the right to freedom removed). The debate was about the legal extent of the removal.

    Personally, I say "good" to this ruling. There's about 50 people on whole life terms, out of prison pop. of 90K: it's only for the worst of the worst.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    The Earth is our prison. No-one can escape.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    I don't know What purpose Life sentence will serve

    It will neither give the convicted a second opportunity to lead a new good life ,Nor it saves the tax payers money

    I feel Capital punishment is better than life sentence.It will cost peanuts to carry out a capital punishment compared to feeding the criminal for life.

    Either make life sentence as 14 years or Introduce capital punishment

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.


    "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?"

    How about the NHS letting them die because they are old and costing a lot to keep alive?

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    11. Mega Awesume Pooster Just now "FIRST!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

    Thanks for your comment. You've virtually guaranteed I won't be languishing as the lowest of the down-votes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Thank goodness for these older wiser people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    In the VERY WORST cases capital punishment should be at least considered! I understand the arguments that its not always cheaper(injection) than life in prison but a set of well maintained gallows alleviates that issue!

    Alternately hard labour! Make these people earn the roof over their heads, 3 square meals, tv's, newspapers, cigarettes etc. Plenty of working people don't get that luxury!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    While I'm glad that our courts are exercising resistance to the overtly unjust ECHR, whole life terms are essentially a very expensive alternative to the death penalty.

    Costs an awful lot to keep a prisoner for 40+ years, why not just give them the needle and cut costs that way rather than taking away frontline jobs in the prisons?

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Yeah lock people up for as long as we can, that way the privatised prisons can turn a tidy profit. The prison-industrial complex is an important earner, just ask the US.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    What is the problem with looking at a case after 25years to find that, surprise, surprise, the original trial judge was correct to impose a whole life sentence. No matter how much anyone can argue that the perpetrator has been rehabilitated the fact of the crime remains.
    It's about time that any murderer was imprisoned for life; after all, only a few decades ago they would have been hung.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Personally I am more concerned that more whole life tariffs are not handed out. I believe anyone who commits murder should receive a whole life tariff.
    If you wish to argue cost America proves it is often more expensive to execute than to impose a whole life sentence

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Since most peoples only understanding of criminal justice is that it is for punishment then the whole system is unfit for purpose. The clash between progressive European law and the current criminal justice system is unavoidable. Most of what we currently do with criminals is ensure that they will remain so for the rest of their lives.


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