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 706.

    It is about time we started putting our own Laws first, if this sort of thing had been done in the first place I.E. decades ago there is a very good chance that society would have been a lot safer now. I am thinking in particular of obvious cases such as Abu Hamza.

  • rate this

    Comment number 705.

    @675.kaybraes - violent psychopaths probably won't care that they won't be released - because they are psychopaths. (Although there isn't actually ever a medical diagnosis of psychopathy).

  • Comment number 704.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 703.

    I see the hanger, floggers and send em back brigade are out in force.

    The problem with the death penalty is that if you get it wrong then you cannot bring back the innocent person. The Rillington Place murders are the most obvious example of this.

    Think lawyers are intelligent - think again. Most of the Tory party is made up of lawyers.......

  • rate this

    Comment number 702.

    GetMeOutOfHere 672:

    "47.. etc etc etc the ECHR is not the same as the EU - stupid people blah blah blah. You can't be in the EU without subsribing to ECHR.
    Just like you can't open an eBay account without using payal - it turns out they are the same company."

    You can use paypal for other transactions than ebay.

    You can accept the ECHR without being in the EU.

    Your arguement does not stand up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 701.

    No one who believes in justice could argue with this ruling: if the trials have been conducted fully & properly, and the appeals processes exhausted, then do not see why there can be any grounds for "compassionate grounds" - they forfeited this compassion when they committed these tragic crimes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 700.

    The problem is we set up the ECHR and if we do not abide by their rules We are no better than countries like what we think North Korea is If we as a nation cannot abide by the law how can we expect the Individual to abide by the law

  • rate this

    Comment number 699.

    I know others have said it already, but the death penalty would resolve this. It isn't about revenge or even punishment, it is merely justice. I just don't understand how anyone who commits murder can expect to be rehabilitated when there is no way back for the victim. As for miscarriages of justice, they will take fewer innocent lives than our love affair with the motor car.

  • rate this

    Comment number 698.


    Would you like me to state the obvious?!

    Well humans, like some other animals, are omnivores!

    Some are meat eaters, like me

    And some are vegetarian.

  • rate this

    Comment number 697.

    Nice to see common sense being applied!
    Let's hope it spreads to other areas of UK life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 696.

    We do need capital punishment for anyone who commits the same crime over and over, whether it be multipal crimes on one occassion or a repeat offence upon release. These people either cant or wont ever understand what it means to be part of a civilised society

  • rate this

    Comment number 695.

    609. Shaunie Babes

    I think maybe the question should be "would you be willing to let 1 innocent person die for the chance to kill all the others who aren't?"

    E.g. If I gave you a gun, 51 bullets and 51 people, one of whom is innocent but the rest convicted murderers and I didn't tell you who's who.

    Would you do it? All of them?

    I don't think I would. That's just me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 694.


    .......Stuff that. She wasn't really a florist, that was a wee white lie to lighten the mood. Come to think of it, I never actually saw her buy a TV license. Makes me wonder!!!

    @681 Andy

    I think you fantasise a bit to much about Cherie Blair for my liking, it's not healthy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 693.

    Trouble is that the views on capital punishment have not moved forwards with the advances in science. Personally I am not a huge fan of bringing back hanging but I think that (hypothetically) if the DNA of the man in the dock had been found inside my raped and murdered daughter I may be persuaded that hanging was justified.

  • rate this

    Comment number 692.

    We seem to have plenty of "no win no fee" lawyers these days.
    How about a new system whereby any lawyer indulging in this kind of nonsensical action on behalf of convicted criminals become liable to ALL costs if they don't win?

  • rate this

    Comment number 691.

    I think we should have a compromise solution on the death penalty. It should be reintroduced to keep the decent law-abiding people of this country happy, but only apply to racially motivated murders to keep the liberal lefties on board.

  • rate this

    Comment number 690.

    533. Ray Boothby
    @Sentient06- You sound a little like Raul Castro, Leonard Lake or a bit like a Nazi strategist. You seem to believe your will and judgement are paramount and that life, even that of a transgressor, is cheap.
    If what you call a "transgressor" has raped and killed a pregnant woman, then his life worthless.
    None of your fancy descriptors can change it.
    Call a spade, a "spade".

  • rate this

    Comment number 689.

    Shaunie Babes; Oh yeah, it works, that's why there are no more crimes committed anywhere with the death penalty. In fact, I would go as far to say that countries with the death penalty are the safest ones.

  • rate this

    Comment number 688.

    if they are convicted of murder and dont want to be locked up for life send them to the most dangerous place on earth broadwater farm and see how they like it. I bet they will ask to be locked up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 687.

    Those of you that think it's immoral to lock someone away for life, just think. Is it immoral to take that person's life or to release them into the community where they may well strike again? The morality of our society is that we are prepared to pay for their incarceration for the rest of their life and offer them the "protection" they denied others.


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