ECHR rules whole-life tariffs without review inhumane and degrading

Wednesday 10 July 2013

In a landmark judgment which the UK government has already aired its "profound disagreement" with, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that whole-life prison sentences without review are inhuman and degrading. Pete Weatherby QC represented the three applicants.

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[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="402"]Pete Weatherby QC addressing the ECHR Pete Weatherby QC addressing the ECHR[/caption]

The case of Vinter and Others v UK was brought by three men currently serving whole-life sentences for murder. While trial judges usually set a minimum term of imprisonment when sentencing, they may in exceptionally serious cases set a "whole life order". England and Wales is the only jurisdiction in Europe which provides trial judges with such a sentencing provision.

During the hearing, Pete Weatherby QC, representing the three applicants, told the court:

"The imposition of a whole life sentence crushes human dignity from the outset, as it removes any chance, and therefore any hope of release in the future. The individual is left in a position of hopelessness whereby he cannot progress whatever occurs."

The court agreed, finding that such sentences are a violation of Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which prohibits inhuman and degrading treatment.

"For the foregoing reasons, the Court considers that, in the context of a life sentence, Article 3 must be interpreted as requiring reducibility of the sentence, in the sense of a review which allows the domestic authorities to consider whether any changes in the life prisoner are so significant, and such progress towards rehabilitation has been made in the course of the sentence, as to mean that continued detention can no longer be justified on legitimate penological grounds." (Paragraph 119)

While the judgment does not impose a judicial or executive mechanism for conducting reviews, or determine when they should take place, citing sentences passed by the International Criminal Court, it does note that there is strong support for reviews to be conducted within 25 years of sentencing and periodically thereafter (Paragraph 120).

Accordingly, the court found that the imposition of whole-life tariffs, which could only be reviewed by the Home Secretary on compassionate grounds, was a violation of the prisoners' Article 3 rights:

"... the Court is not persuaded that, at the present time, the applicants' life sentences can be regarded as reducible for the purposes of Article 3 of the Convention. It accordingly finds that the requirements of Article 3 in this respect have not been met in relation to any of the three applicants." (Paragraph 130)

The court did emphasize however that the three individuals who brought the case should not expect an imminent reduction in their sentences.

The full judgment is available on the European Court's website. The Court press release also provides a useful summary of the case. A video of the oral hearing on 28 November 2012 is also available.

The case and the political anger it has provoked from the UK government has been reported widely, including by the BBC, Channel 4 News, The Guardian, The Independent and The Telegraph.

Pete Weatherby QC is a member of and clerked through Garden Court North Chambers, Manchester. He is also a member of Garden Court Chambers, where he is a member of the Prison Law Team.

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