The court of appeal announces whole-life prison sentences are legal and compatible with human rights – a decision that is likely to affect the sentences of Lee Rigby’s killers.
A panel of five judges, headed by the Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas, announced their decision on controversial “life means life” orders at the court of appeal in London.
The judges increased the 40-year minimum prison term being served by killer Ian McLoughlin, who murdered a man while on day release, to a whole-life tariff.
Ian McLoughlin, who has killed three times, has received the sentence that crime required. Dominic Grieve
And they dismissed an appeal by Lee Newell, who murdered a child killer while in prison, against the whole-life order imposed in his case.
Sentencing in a number of high-profile criminal cases has been put on hold – including the terms to be handed out to soldier Lee Rigby’s murderers – pending the judgment.
The government has said that whole-life tariffs are “wholly justified in the most heinous cases”.
Reacting to Tuesday’s ruling Attorney General Dominic Grieve said on Twitter: “I am pleased CoA (court of appeal) has confirmed those who commit the most heinous crimes can be sent to prison for the rest of their lives.”
Mr Grieve added: “As someone who has killed three times, Ian McLoughlin committed just such a crime, and following today’s judgment he has received the sentence that crime required.
“I asked the court of appeal to look again at McLoughlin’s original sentence because I did not think that the European Court of Human Rights had said anything which prevented our courts from handing down whole life terms in the most serious cases.
“The court of appeal has agreed with me and today’s judgment gives the clarity our judges need when they are considering sentencing cases like this in the future.”
Lord Thomas said the court had held that the statutory scheme enacted by parliament which enabled judges to pass whole-life orders was “entirely compatible” with the European Convention on Human Rights.
“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.
“Under the statutory scheme as enacted by parliament, the secretary of state has power to release a prisoner on licence if he is satisfied that exceptional circumstances exist which justify the prisoner’s release on compassionate grounds.”
He added that the court had given guidance as to the meaning of that under domestic law.
Judges should continue as they have done to impose whole-life orders in those rare and exceptional cases which fall within the statutory scheme. Lord Thomas
At a hearing in January, Lord Thomas, Sir Brian Leveson, Lady Justice Hallett, Lord Justice Treacy and Mr Justice Burnett were urged to find that imposing sentences which mean a prisoner can never be released are not “manifestly excessive or wrong in principle”.
Such terms were deemed a breach of human rights following a successful appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) by murderers Jeremy Bamber, Douglas Vinter and Peter Moore.
Last year the trio won a ruling that their whole-life sentences amount to “inhuman and degrading treatment”.
Whole-lifers should be entitled to a review of their sentence 25 years into their term at the very latest, the Grand Chamber of the Strasbourg-based court said.
The ruling by 17 judges from across Europe sparked further outrage among critics of the court – despite reassurances that the decision did not amount to grounds for imminent release.
As well as dealing with the appeal by Newell, who murdered child killer Subhan Anwar, they were asked to decide if the 40 years imposed in McLoughlin’s case could be regarded as “unduly lenient” and should be increased.
In the case of McLoughlin, the judges heard that he was aware of the proceedings but did not wish for any argument or representations to be made on his behalf.
His stance was explained to the court by barrister Kevin McCartney, who said McLoughlin had not considered the legal aspect, but had approached it from a “purely personal approach”.
It appeared from letters written by McLoughlin that he had been “very anxious at the sentencing hearing” and that this was a “sentiment that carried on… not to act in any way that would cause any further distress to the deceased’s family”.
Mr McCartney said: “That is a factor that played very heavily, as I understand it, in his attitude towards these proceedings.”
It was successfully argued on behalf of the attorney general that the “failure to impose a whole-life order renders the sentence unduly lenient”.
On behalf of Newell, Joe Stone QC, in seeking permission to appeal against sentence, argued that a whole-life term was “manifestly excessive”.
Newell, now 45, challenged a whole-life sentence imposed last September at Warwick Crown Court.
He was convicted alongside Gary Smith for the February 2013 murder of convicted child killer Anwar in his cell at Long Lartin Prison, Worcestershire. Newell was already serving a life sentence for a previous murder committed in 1988.
Triple killer McLoughlin, 55, was jailed for life at the Old Bailey last October for stabbing a man on his first day-release from prison after 21 years in custody.
When sentencing McLoughlin, the trial judge imposed a 40-year tariff, saying he could not pass a whole-life term because of the European court ruling.
McLoughlin – who had killed twice before – stabbed Graham Buck, 66, as he came to the aid of a neighbour in Little Gaddesden, Hertfordshire, last July.
Those currently serving whole-life terms in England and Wales include Moors Murderer Ian Brady, who tortured and murdered children along with accomplice Myra Hindley, and serial killer Rosemary West.
Mr Justice Sweeney has said he will wait to sentence Fusilier Lee Rigby’s killers, Michael Adebolajo, and Michael Adebowale, until after the Court of Appeal decision. No date has yet been fixed for that sentencing hearing.