Tuesday 9 July 2013

Vinter and others v UK ~ European Court of Human Rights

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights has held that the United Kingdom is in breach of Article 3 of the Convention by imposing whole life orders without possibility of review for murder.  The key words there are without possibility of review.  The court's judgment does not mean that such prisoners will necessarily be released but it does mean that the UK must put in place a review process so that any whole life order can be reconsidered in the light of circumstances.  Given that the imposition of whole life orders is already exceptional, it is perhaps unlikely that many such prisoners will be ultimately successful in securing their release and, even if they did, release would be on licence.  The power of the Secretary of State to act on compassionate grounds remains in place: section 30 of the Crime Sentences Act 1997.

Previous post - 28th November 2012 - Whole Life Terms for Murder - Vinter and others v UK

The court's judgment

The following is from the court's press release:

United Kingdom (application nos. 66069/09, 130/10 and 3896/10), which is final, the European Court of Human Rights held, by 16 votes to one, that there had been: a violation of Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The case concerned three applicants’ complaint that their imprisonment for life amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment as they had no hope of release.

The Court found in particular that, for a life sentence to remain compatible with Article 3, there had to be both a possibility of release and a possibility of review. It noted that there was clear support in European and international law and practice for those principles, with the large majority of Convention Contracting States not actually imposing life sentences at all or, if they did, providing for a review of life sentences after a set period (usually 25 years’ imprisonment).

The domestic law concerning the Justice Secretary’s power to release a person subject to a whole life order was unclear. In addition, prior to 2003 a review of the need for a whole life order had automatically been carried out by a Minister 25 years into the sentence. This had been eliminated in 2003 and no alternative review mechanism put in place. In these circumstances, the Court was not persuaded that the applicants’ whole life sentences were compatible with the European Convention.

In finding a violation in this case, however, the Court did not intend to give the applicants any prospect of imminent release. Whether or not they should be released would depend, for example, on whether there were still legitimate penological grounds for their continued detention and whether they should continue to be detained on grounds of dangerousness. These questions were not in issue in this case and were not the subject of argument before the Court.

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