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Court of Appeal validates whole-life prison sentences

The Court of Appeal has ruled that judges should retain the right to hand down 'whole-life' prison sentences, after carefully considering a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that suggested that such sentences might be unlawful, reports the BBC.

The Court of Appeal was considering applications by two murderers, Lee Newell and Ian McLoughlin, against the whole-life sentences handed down to them by UK judges.

Whole-life terms were introduced by the Conservative Government in 1983 under a scheme to allow judges to determine the 'penal element' (punishment, retribution and deterrence of future crimes) of a sentence and the Home Secretary of the day to determine the tariff period (protection of the public from risk).

Whole-life sentences have always been controversial because they inherently deny the prisoner the opportunity of release regardless of the reform they make in prison, or changes in circumstances.

This concern prompted the Home Secretary in 1994 to introduce a review for all whole-life prisoners at 25 years to consider whether there were any appropriate reasons to change the whole-life tariff to one of a determined duration.

The reasons for a review were initially confined in 1994 to considerations of retribution and deterrence, but a later Home Secretary extended the criteria permitting a review to those beyond deterrence and retribution.

Changes under the Criminal Justice Act 2003

The Criminal Justice Act 2003 changed the way whole-life sentences were handed down, making the setting of the whole-life tariff the responsibility of judges, not politicians.

The types of offences considered serious enough to warrant a whole-life term are laid out in Schedule 21 of the Sentencing Council guidelines, to include murder of two or more persons that are either premeditated, involve abduction or are of a sexual or sadistic nature.

Additional circumstances include the murder of a child with abduction or a sexual nature, murders for political or religious reasons and murder after previous conviction for murder.

Release from a whole-life tariff under s.30 of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 permits the Justice Secretary to release a prisoner from a whole-life tariff only if terminally ill, bedridden or incapacitated and if risk of reoffending is minimal, imprisonment would reduce life and early release confers a benefit.

Justifying whole-life sentences

In the cases of McLoughlin and Newell the Court of Appeal decided, despite the European Court of Human Rights rulings last year in the cases of Jeremy Bamber, Peter Moore and Douglas Vinter, that whole-life tariffs without the chance of review were illegal, UK judges could continue to hand such sentences down in the most serious cases.

The justification given by the Court of Appeal is that the ECHR erroneously ruled that UK prisoners sentenced to whole-life terms had no chance of release, which they do have in exceptional circumstances.

The ruling paves the way for the killers of Drummer Lee Rigby to be sentenced to whole-life terms.

The Justice Secretary Chris Grayling welcomed the ruling.

"Our courts should be able to send the most brutal murderers to jail for the rest of their lives," he said.

The result of the case is that McLoughlin's sentence of 40 years' imprisonment has been increased to a whole-life term, and Newell's whole-life tariff has been upheld.