Mandatory life sentences for murder upheld
Supreme Court judgment:Lynch v Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Ireland and the Attorney General and Whelan v Minister for Justice, Equality and Law reform, Ireland and the Attorney General.
Neutral citation: 2010 IESC 34/10
Judgment was delivered by the then Chief Justice, Mr Justice John Murray, on May 14th, 2010.
The court unanimously decided to reject the appeal by Paul Lynch and Peter Whelan that the imposition of a mandatory life sentence for murder contravened the Constitution and European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
Paul Lynch and Peter Whelan, both of whom were convicted of murder, challenged the mandatory life sentence prescribed for murder by section 2 of the Criminal Justice Act 1990 on the grounds it breached the Irish Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.
Lynch was convicted of the 1995 murder of a taxi driver and sentenced to life imprisonment in February 1997.
In 2002, Whelan was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of a young woman and the attempted murder of her friend.
The detention of Lynch was considered by the Parole Board in 2004 and in July that year, the minister for justice determined that he should not be released from prison, and any further application in respect of his sentence would not be considered for a period of three years.
In a challenge to the High Court, the two men said the mandatory life sentence imposed on them for murder breached the separation of powers and the doctrine of proportionality. They argued that the power of the minister for justice to release a prisoner serving a life sentence represented a judicial function which was incompatible with the ECHR.
It was also argued that imposition of a mandatory life sentence was against the principle of proportionality enshrined in the Constitution, since the trial judge had no discretion to impose or tailor a sentence which reflected the particular circumstances in which the offence may have been committed.
They also argued that the separation of powers enshrined in the Constitution was breached as the minister for justice could ultimately release the plaintiffs from prison and in exercising such power would carry out a judicial function.
The High Court rejected their challenge. The two men appealed to the Supreme Court, which upheld the decision of the High Court.
The court rejected the argument that section 2 of the 1990 Act was incompatible with the ECHR, saying the European Court of Human Rights had previously “made a clear distinction” between the imposition of a mandatory and punitive life sentence and the exercise of an executive discretion to commute, remit or grant conditional release. The court also refused to accept that case law put forward by the appellants, indicating that the penalty imposed should be proportionate to the circumstances of the case, had any application to them. The court’s rationale for this conclusion was that the crime of murder was intrinsically the most serious offence that can be perpetrated.
The court deemed it acceptable for the legislature to stipulate a mandatory life sentence for murders, arguing life is the most essential entitlement to be defended and vindicated by the State.
The court said it was of the view the learned trial judge was correct when she concluded “there can be nothing offensive in the Oireachtas promoting the respect for life by concluding that any murder, even at the lowest end of the scale, is so abhorrent an offence to society that it merits a mandatory life sentence . . .”
The appellants also put forward that the prescribing of a mandatory life sentence for murder was contrary to the doctrine of the separation of powers.
The court said the prescription of a mandatory penalty by the legislature was a valid act as the offence of murder demanded the imposition of a life sentence, and therefore the doctrine of proportionality was not in this case violated.
The full judgment was published on the Courts Service website on July 3rd, 2012. It is available on courts.ie.