David Cameron and justice secretary Chris Grayling both reacted angrily to today’s ruling that whole life sentences must now be subject to periodic reviews, writes Kim Evans.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled by a majority of 16:1 that in the cases of prisoners subject to whole life tariffs there had to be ‘both a possibility of release and a possibility of review’. In this final judgment the court has declared whole life orders to be a breach of Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights (prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment).

  • Chris Grayling, the justice secretary, said the ruling would leave the original authors of the European convention on human rights ‘turning in their graves‘ and said it reinforced his determination to curtail the role of the Strasbourg court.
  • Conservative MP Dominic Raab said that the ruling showed the ‘warped moral compass‘ of the Strasbourg Court, and that the ruling was a ‘gross distortion of the European Convention, an attack on the UK’s democratic right to set its own criminal justice policy. It would, he said, be toxic for the reputation of human rights with the public.

Pete Weatherby QC of Garden Court North acting for Douglas Vintner, Jeremy Bamber, and Peter Moore had argued that the imposition of a whole life tariff was inhuman and degrading. ‘It boils down to an issue of human dignity,’ he said. ‘The death penalty is a way of excluding offenders from society permanently and this sentence is only one step down from the death sentence. It does the same thing – irrespective of what you do next, you will be locked in a box for the rest of your life.’

The Criminal Justice Act 2003 removed the possibility for the review of a whole life order after 25 years, although in extremely rare cases a prisoner could be released at the discretion of the justice secretary. In practice, this discretion is almost never used and was dismissed as being a viable alternative.

The court said that this ruling should not be understood as giving the prospect of imminent release. Any review will have to balance each of the justifications for a prisoner’s continuing detention (danger, potential for rehabilitation, public protection and whether the offence was one that was particularly heinous).

Vintner was convicted of the murder of his wife and had been previously convicted of the murder of a work colleague. Bamber was convicted of the murders of his parents, sister and her two children. Moore was found guilty of killing four men.

Weatherby said: ‘This ruling gives everybody the hope of redemption.’ Although it remains to be seen whether, like the prisoner voting issue, the UK government puts it into practice or ignores it.

Author: Kim Evans

Kim Evans has spent 31 years working at the sharp end of the criminal justice system – the last ten years in the cells of East Sussex police stations defending people in custody. ‘I’d guesstimate that 90% of my clients have a personality disorder, mental health issues, and, or, serious substance addiction be it drugs or alcohol,’ she says. Kim started her career at the Metropolitan Police as a uniformed officer in 1979.

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