Whole life prison terms


On 18th February 2014 the Lord Chief Justice ruled that in England and Wales, our judges are permitted to impose whole life sentences for ‘exceptionally’ serious offences.

Whole life prisoners include notorious criminals such as the Yorkshire Ripper, Rosemary West, and Moors Murderer Ian Brady.  More recently, the killer of five year old April Jones, and the killer of two police officers in Greater Manchester, received such sentences, reserved for the most heinous of crimes.

The Court of Appeal’s ruling appears to defy the European Court of Human Rights’ judgment in Vinter and Others v UK in July 2013. Strasbourg’s stance was that our current law provided no realistic prospect for release of such prisoners, and therefore amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment, breaching Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Currently, ‘exceptional circumstances’ must exist before the justice secretary can release a whole-life prisoner on compassionate grounds.  The narrow definition of ‘exceptional circumstances;’ namely that a prisoner should be suffering from a terminal illness likely to shortly occur in death, is what the European Court took issue with.

Under our obligation to “take into account” ECtHR rulings, we fulfilled our obligation, but nothing more. The Court of Appeal stressed that our law does have a ‘realistic prospect of release’ as all exceptional circumstances relevant to the release of the prisoner would be considered in line with human rights law. Unless we are to see new ‘exceptional circumstances’ it is difficult to see how this can be the case.

The debate sparks wider questions about the purpose of custody, and what role, if any, rehabilitation or redemption should have in sentencing.