Are whole life sentences lawful?

The Strasbourg court has ruled that whole life sentences are a degrading treatment of prisoners and incompatible with Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which prohibits degrading or inhuman punishments.

The cases were brought by the convicted murderers Jeremy Bamber, Peter Moore and Douglas Vinter.  The judgment said: “For a life sentence to remain compatible with article 3 there had to be both a possibility of release and a possibility of review.”

The court emphasised, however, that “the finding of a violation in the applicants’ cases should not be understood as giving them any prospect of imminent release. Whether or not they should be released would depend, for example, on whether there were still legitimate penological grounds for their continued detention and whether they should continue to be detained on grounds of dangerousness. These questions were not in issue.”

The ruling does not therefore mean that prisoners have a right to be released but it means that they have a right for their life term to be reviewed.

The government cannot appeal against this ruling but now has six months to consider its response.

Below sets out what whole life sentences are:

  • 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

Currently there are 49 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

At Emery Johnson we have an experienced prison law department, who can assist you.  If you have any queries about prison law then please do not hesitate to get in touch on 0116 255 4855.