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19 April 2024

English judges uphold prison terms for life


England's Court of Appeal on Tuesday upheld the principle of jail terms for life, following a European ruling that left judges unsure whether they could still impose the punishment.

Five judges found that whole-life sentences were "entirely compatible" with the European human rights convention.

So-called "lifers" cannot be released from prison except at the discretion of the justice secretary or on compassionate grounds.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in July last year that the absence of any hope of release violated prisoners' human rights, calling the sentences "inhuman and degrading".

But five British appeal judges upheld the principle -- which risks igniting a fresh row between the ECHR and the British government, which welcomed the ruling.

Judge Nigel Sweeney postponed sentencing the killers of British soldier Lee Rigby, who was butchered to death in a London street by Islamist extremists last May, pending Tuesday's decision.

The five appeal judges were led by the head of the judiciary Lord John Thomas.

Delivering their findings, the new lord chief justice of England and Wales said whole life terms were "entirely compatible" with the European human rights convention.

"Judges should therefore continue as they have done to impose whole-life orders in those rare and exceptional cases," Thomas said.

"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."

The death penalty for murder was abolished in mainland Britain in 1965 and replaced with a mandatory life sentence.

Thomas accepted that in a democratic society there may be debate about whether a judge should have the power to jail someone until they die.

However, it was evident in the court's view that "there are some crimes that are so heinous that parliament was entitled to proscribe, compatibly with the convention, that the requirements of just punishment encompass passing a sentence which includes a whole-life order," he said.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said: "This is a timely and welcome decision. Our courts should be able to send the most brutal murderers to jail for the rest of their lives.

"I think people in Britain will be glad that our courts have disagreed with the ECHR, and upheld the law that the UK parliament has passed."

Prime Minister David Cameron has said he "profoundly" disagreed with the ECHR ruling.

There are 53 people serving whole-life terms in England and Wales. Seven are in hospital, with the rest in jail.

They include the notorious 1960s "Moors murderer" Ian Brady; Levi Bellfield, who killed schoolgirl Milly Dowler in 2002, and Steve Wright, who murdered five prostitutes in Ipswich in 2006.

They also include Dale Cregan, who killed two Manchester policewomen having lured them to their deaths in 2012, and Mark Bridger, who was found guilty last year of murdering Welsh five-year-old April Jones.

The only woman is serial killer Rose West, who helped torture, rape and murder an unknown number of women with her husband Fred over a 20-year period.