Whole-life prison terms legal, say top judges

Published on Tuesday, 18 February 2014 11:19
Written by Daniel Mason

A panel of five leading judges has upheld whole-life terms for prisoners guilty of the most serious crimes, despite an earlier ruling opposing the sentences from the European Court of Human Rights.

The ECHR in Strasbourg said in July last year that full life sentences without a possibility of review after 25 years were a breach of human rights.

But today the court of appeal in London rejected that view and said whole-life terms were legal.

It increased the prison sentence of murderer Ian McLoughlin from 40 years to a whole-life tariff, and also dismissed an appeal against a whole-life order by another murderer Lee Newell.

The lord chief justice, Lord Thomas, said parliament's statutory scheme for whole-life tariffs was "entirely compatible" with human rights law.

"Judges should therefore continue as they have done to impose whole-life orders in those rare and exceptional cases which fall within the statutory scheme," he said.

The case of triple killer McLoughlin – who was jailed for stabbing to death a man while on day release following 21 years in custody – was referred to the court by Dominic Grieve, the attorney general, who argued the original sentence was too lenient.

The trial judge had passed a 40-year sentence saying he could not impose a full life term because of the ECHR ruling.

Following today's ruling, Grieve said he was pleased that "those who commit the most heinous crimes can be sent to prison for the rest of their lives".

He added: "As someone who has killed three times, Ian McLoughlin committed just such a crime, and following today's judgment he received the sentence that crime required."

The decision provided clarity for judges considering similar cases in the future, Grieve said.

"I did not think the ECHR had said anything that prevented our courts from handing down whole life terms in the most serious cases. The court of appeal has agreed with me."

The ECHR made its judgment last year following an appeal by convicted murderers Jeremy Bamber, Douglas Vinter and Peter Moore.

It said that a prison sentence with no chance of parole was inhuman and degrading, prompting criticism from the British government. The court of appeal today contradicted that view.

A number of cases had been on hold until the decision was made, including the sentencing of Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, the convicted killers of the soldier Lee Rigby.

The pair will now be be sentenced next Wednesday, 26 February.

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