April 19 2024
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Appeal judges to review whole-life sentences

Appeal judges to review whole-life sentences

The killer of Sarah Everard is challenging his sentence not to be released from prison until he dies as part of a review by the Court of Appeal of whole-life orders. There are presently 64 people in prison in England and Wales under such sentences. This was the second time in a decade that the court has looked at whole-life terms – in 2012 a panel of five including the Lord Chief Justice ruled that the sentence was compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (as reported on the Justice Gap here).

Wayne Couzens’s barrister told Appeal judges that whilst he deserved ‘decades in jail’, a whole life sentence was excessive. ‘Mr Couzens accepts that his crimes are abhorrent and nothing I say in any way is intended to minimise them or to minimise the impact of these crimes on Sarah Everard’s family and huge circle of friends,’ Jim Sturman QC told the court. Couzens received a whole-life term last year for the rape and murder of the 33-year-old after he abducted her in south London. Yesterday, as reported by the Press Association, senior judges heard challenges or appeals to the prison sentences of five killers, including Couzens.

Sturman said in written submissions: ‘Whilst this may well be considered by the public and the court to be a case of equal seriousness to a political, religious, or ideological murder, it is not such an offence, not does it fall into any other category listed in the schedule.’

He continued: ‘A lot of very unique and very horrible cases come before the court…. but in our respectful submission, the court should think long and hard and step back from a whole-life order in this case.’

Tom Little QC, representing the Attorney General’s Office and Crown Prosecution Service, said Couzens’ ‘criminality was, as found by the judge, a fundamental attack in reality on our democratic way of life’. ‘A police officer is in a uniquely powerful position,’ Mr Little added.

Emma Tustin and Thomas Hughes, who killed six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes in 2020, also had their sentences reviewed on Wednesday. The BBC’s legal correspondent Dominic Casciani noted that yesterday’s ‘super-appeal’ was the second time in a decade that the court has considered the law and practice of whole-life terms (see here). He pointed out that the Emma Tustin case was ‘more complex’ and her lawyers argued that ‘the killer’s own mental ill health and experience as a victim were factors that counted against a whole-life term’. Casciani continued: ’But it’s already clear where the judiciary stand in general – on average, they’ve imposed far more whole-life orders since taking over the job from ministers some 20 years ago.’

The sentencing of a small number of prisoners for life with parole has been a fraught political issue. Judges have had the power to impose the sentence since the Criminal Justice Act (CJA) 2003, prior to that home secretaries have had the power to impose whole-life tariffs since 1983. The sentence was the cause of political controversy in 2013 when the then Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling cited a ruling of the European Court on Human Rights as a key reason why his party promising to introduce a British bill of rights. Every other European country, except Holland, has a fixed period for  lifers after which release is considered.