Court of Appeal upholds principle of whole-life prison terms


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

Related Stories

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.


More on This Story

Related Stories



This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    If a whole life tariff is issued and the conviction is sound, such as Lee Rigby's killers then the death penalty should be reintroduced. By there actions they have erased there human rights.
    The cost to the tax payer of keeping these murderers is not justifiable.
    Plus the prison service spends more money on trying to rehabilitate when the funds could be better spent on mainline NHS services.

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.


  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    At last a sensible decision from the Judiciary, I thought I would have wait for the whole of my life to see it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    There's something wrong when European judges rule by 16 to 1 that whole-life sentences are inhuman whilst Britain argues otherwise. Why this dichotomy?

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    If I read another comment were people do not understand the difference between the ECHR and the EU I think I would be guilty of a serious crime!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    Why offer them a pill or the option of euthanasia? I am sure there are many victims and families of victims who would much rather they spend the rest of their life in prison than given the option of an easy way out. Unbelievable the amount of people that think being in jail is a holiday.

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    Back to life, back to reality.

    As much as possible, lifers should be made to work & pay for their incarceration.

    It is also about time the prison population was made to work for communitys.

    Higher UK wages means expensive flood defences - use prisoners, just as they did during & after WWII to build sea defences along east coast & elsewhere make them work with shovels etc as previous

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.

    Lifers are denied the possibility, if they repent, of ever making a positive contribution to society.

    That could be fixed if they were allowed to offer themselves for organ harvesting.

    Some might feel that that was better than life behind bars.

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    The ECHR was created for the right reasons.

    Unfortunately it's been abused by people such a Abu Hamza's lawyers etc to keep someone who is an enemy of the UK in the UK. Just one example but there's countless others. The process it so slow it buys them valuable time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    103. Getting_Angry
    "If you deliberately take more than one life you should get death"


    So you're saying Thatcher should have been executed for the sinking of the Belgrano, then.

    I notice whenever the BBC allows HR discussions, it's always on criminal's rights, never the protection HRA1998 gives our pensions and property, from bankrupt lenders and employers' creditors claims etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    “110. Yoda
    The problem with our justice system is that it is ruled by the liberal middle classes, [j]ust like the BBC…”
    Ever heard of the Craig Bentley case? - an innocent man hanged because the person who did murder the policeman was underage and what you call the “whole of society” deemed that someone had to die.

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    Will everyone posting that this has something to do with the EU learn something please. Human rights are dealt with by the European Court of Human Rights which has nothing to do with the European Union. The UK signed an entirely separate European Convention on Human Rights. I realise there are politicians who want to confuse the two, but they are entirely separate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    I agree with @128

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    139. Darth Sandro
    Personally, if I had my way, the most heinous of criminals would be forced into medical experiments. Drug trials and the like. Make them useful to society. If a potential cure for cancer has been found, test it on a murderer.
    Might make more sense to test it on a cancer patient.

    Unless your murderer already has cancer how on earth will you show it works?

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    They think they know best"

    Unlike you, of course?

    Better idea. Bring back capital punishment. Cheaper, quicker, less messy"

    What about the Birmingham 6, Guildford 4, Maguire 7, Stefan Kizsko, Sally Clarke and the many other demonstrable miscarriages of justice over the past few decades? They could never be adequately compensated anyway, but impossible when they're dead.

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    Although no one is happy about the cost to jail prisoners for life, it is a cost worth paying to keep society safe and prevent irretrievable miscarriages of justice caused by any death penalties later proved to have been wrongly carried out. If we wish to be fairly treated when we travel abroad, we need to set an example of how fairly we treat prisoners at home.

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    We need to address re-offending & the quality of prison service.
    If the point is for them to re-enter society at some point, then surely we must install confidence in the public that the prisoners are above average social members, e.g. hold them to the same standard as we would ask of the immigrants.
    If an ex-drug dealer is never going to get a job, prison or not, he's not going to contribute.

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    110. Yoda
    "The problem with our justice system is that it is ruled by the liberal middle classes"
    What's your preference then? Totalitarian elite? Or a dictatorship lead by Katie Price?

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    It's a tricky one, but on balance I thinks it's the right decision.
    Now we need to get back the power to deport foreign criminals after that motion was sabotaged by Labour a couple weeks ago.

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    Murderers have taken a "whole of life" with no chance of release.

    It really is the true case of punishment fitting the crime.

    The current system is not perfect but it has evolved and can continue to evolve but their are some whose life is useless to society after their actions but we see fit to keep them out of the way.

    So that is WHOLE OF LIFE

    is it really that difficult?


Page 52 of 60


More UK stories


Features & Analysis

  • Signposts showing the US and UK flagsAn ocean apart

    How British misunderstanding of the US is growing

  • Before and after shotsPerfect body

    Just how reliable are 'before and after' photos?

  • Hillary Clinton frowns.Something to hide?

    Hillary's private emails threaten her air of inevitability

  • Mukesh SinghNo remorse

    Delhi bus rapist says victim shouldn't have fought back

Elsewhere on the BBC


  • Former al-Qaeda double agent Aimen DeanHARDtalk Watch

    Islamic State is about revenge says former al-Qaeda member turned spy Aimen Dean

Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.