Thursday, 4 March 2010

Murder: Life Sentences and Tariffs: Identities of those convicted

30 years ago, Peter Sutcliffe (media alias "The Yorkshire Ripper") was convicted of 13 murders of women in West Yorkshire.  Interestingly, his defence (led by James Chadwin QC) sought to persuade the judge (Mr Justice Boreham) to accept pleas of guilty to manslaughter based on diminished responsibility.  The judge refused and required Sutcliffe to stand his trial for murder.  Once convicted, Sutcliffe received the mandatory life sentence and Boreham J recommended that Sutcliffe serve 30 years.  As the law then stood, such a recommendation was not binding upon the Home Secretary who, in those days, was responsible for deciding the tariff to be served before release could be considered.  The Home Secretary was "advised" on such matters by the Parole Board.  It is now reported in the media that, according to medical reports, Sutcliffe is now "cured" of the schizophrenia which, it is said, he suffered from.  Moves are being made to have a tariff fixed for him.

Since the Criminal Justice Act 2003, it is now the judges who fix a tariff and they do this by applying Schedule 21.  The Parole Board is no longer merely an "advisory" body but operates much more like a court - see the decision in R (Brooks and others) v Secretary of State for Justice [2008] EWCA Civ 29 (I am not sure whether the problems identified in that case have all been addressed adequately).  The Parole Board is concerned with whether the prisoner can be released after the tariff has been served.   Thus, it will fall to a judge to fix the tariff - see Guardian 1st March.  Will it be a "whole life tariff"?  Maybe, but one factor in the case could be that old recommendation for 30 years.  We do not know how Boreham J arrived at that figure.  I hope that it is ignored since justice demands that this killer remains in custody even if "whole life tariffs" will be rare.

Here is a website for more information about the Sutcliffe trial.

I note that the Ministry of Justice has announced that those who kill others by using knives will potentially attract a tariff of 25 years.  The present government has a good record of leading the increase in sentencing for unlawful  possession of knives and, perhaps encouraged by the Court of Appeal decision in Povey 2008 the level of sentencing has increased - see MoJ News release.

The media are full of the fact that one of those convicted of the murder of James Bulger has been recalled to prison.  An injunction is in force to protect his identity: Venables v News Group Newspapers [2001] All ER 908 (Family Division).  The government cannot make any statement which might reveal their new identity and even publishing the reason for a return to custody might provide information which would lead to the new identity being discovered.  Mr Straw is right to maintain the line though I don't really understand why he said to a TV interview that the information could not be released "at the moment".  The protection of these identities is in line with what is now referred to as "the Osman duty" and that is based on Article 2 (Right to Life) of the European Convention on Human Rights.  One difficulty with this situation appears to be just how much information is given to the family of a victim and on what terms is that information given?


  1. "Thus, it will fall to the Parole Board to fix the tariff. Will it be a "whole life tariff"? Maybe, but one factor in the case could be that old recommendation for 30 years. We do not know how Boreham J arrived at that figure."

    You need to keep in mind the punishment/protection distinction. The Parole Board make the release decision, but only after expiry of the tariff (unless whole life in which case they don't really some into it at all).

    The tariff will be set by a High Court Judge, presumably Mitting J who did the hearing on Monday. Once that expires - if ever - then the Parole Board will decide whether it is safe to release him.

  2. Anonymous - many thanks. You are right. I also assume that the tariff will be set by Mitting J.