Should Life Mean Life? A Rethinking of Whole Life Tariffs

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Murderers and those convicted of extremely serious offences could face lengthy US-style custodial sentences of more than 100 years under new plans being considered by UK Ministers. Life sentences are a topic subject, made even more current by the Court of Appeal judgement released this morning. The radical increase of prison terms is one of several ideas being considered by the current Government in a means to overcome a ban on whole life tariffs imposed by the European Court of Human Rights.

A Little History
In July 2013 The European Court of Human Rights ruled there was a “lack of clarity” in the law on whole life tariffs. In the UK there are 49 people who may never be eligible for a parole review or release. One of those men Jeremy Bamber, who was jailed for murdering five members of his family in 1985, along with Douglas Vinter, who admitted killing his wife in 2008, and Peter Moore, who killed four gay men in 1995, appealed to the ECHR on the grounds that such a tariff was in breach of their article 3 right saying their sentences ‘undermined human dignity and destroyed human spirit’ leaving them ‘depressed and in despair.’ I for one am strongly of the opinion that those who have such a complete and extreme disregard for other people fundamental rights have no merits for a claim for their own – but I digress…

In a somewhat controversial decision The Grand Chamber, the highest body of the ECtHR, agreed with them and said that ‘refusing them [criminals with whole life tariffs] any prospect of release amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment’ and ‘given this lack of clarity and the absence of a dedicated review mechanism for whole life orders, the court was not persuaded that, at the present time, the applicant’s life sentences were compatible with Article 3.’

The ECtHR has become seemingly incapable of reflecting what the general public want and has made a decision which, to any prudent and reasonable person, seems to be so abstract as to threaten the very nature and rationale of human rights and the rule of law. The decision goes too far by effectively ruling out the prospect of whole life sentences in all cases and not just certain types of cases. The basis of the decision was that of the finality of the tariff, in that whole life sentences offer the offender no option of review which perhaps is an issue which should be addressed however the original ideologies of Human Rights seem to have been lost in the farrago of rulings that Strasbourg has deemed fit to make. Let us not forget that the European Court of Human Rights is, in its present form, unanswerable to anyone or any judicial/institutional body. Lord Judge, the former Lord Chief Justice, iterated his concern over the issue stating that ‘no judge, however distinguished should have that sort of power’ and that ‘the most fundamental principle of our unwritten constitution is Parliamentary sovereignty.’

UK Response
The reply from the UK to the ruling has been profound with Tory ministers condemning the ECtHR decision. Prime Minister David Cameron recently stated that “There are some people who commit such dreadful crimes that they should be sent to prison and life should mean life. Whatever the European court has said, we must put in place arrangements to make sure that can continue.”

Following on from this the Ministry of Justice, headed by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, has stated that they wish to give Britain’s Supreme Court the ultimate authority on interpreting human rights legislation in order to prevent the Strasbourg court expanding its jurisdiction further. Under the Government’s plans, prisoners sentenced to exceptionally long terms, would be able to have their tariffs reviewed and potentially reduced for good behaviour thus complying with Strasbourg’s requirements for a legitimate right of review. Ministers are subsequently investigating whether legislation needs to be changed to allow judges to hand sentences of hundreds of years, which could have the same effect as a whole life term.

The decision from the ECtHR may have created another set of problems as, notwithstanding the basis of the decision, the need for some sort of review process afforded to such offenders, a broad stroking veto on whole life tariffs is an inefficient means of achieving their goal. A further troubling question is whether or not the current proposals open up yet another avenue of appeal in that 100+ year sentences still breach article 3 as there is little or no realistic expectation of release.

I agree that perhaps some of my opinions have been a little robust. There is a place for mercy and a sentence of 1000 years may, in certain circumstances, be excessive. Nevertheless if these proposals are a genuine attempt to protect the public and come with an inbuilt review process then I can see few reasons why even the most liberal of lawyers could have an objection. Whether or not the proposals are simply a eurosceptical basis for an alternative political agenda or whether they have a genuine chance of realisation keeping the most serious of criminals ‘behind bars’ is as yet unknown.  But with life expectancy on the constant increase perhaps 100 years isn’t such a long time after all….

By Jamie Baxter

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