Judgment: European court rules on right to sentence review

Vinter and Others v the UK


European Court of Human Rights Grand Chamber
Judgment was delivered on July 9th, 2013, by a Grand Chamber composed of 17 judges led by president of the chamber Dean Spielmann

A life sentence is not compatible with Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights if it does not include the possibility of a review to consider if continued detention is justified.

Three prisoners serving life sentences for murder with no right to review, Douglas Vinter, Jeremy Bamber and Peter Moore, complained to the ECHR that their imprisonment without hope of release breached Article 3 of the convention. The article stipulates “no one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.

Vinter had been convicted of murdering his wife in 2008, after having murdered a work colleague in 1996.

Bamber was found guilty of murdering his adoptive parents, sister and her two young children in 1985, and Moore was convicted of murdering four men in 1995.

Until the enactment of the UK Criminal Justice Act, 2003, when a life sentence was imposed by a court, a minister would decide on the minimum term including if a whole-life sentence should be set.

If this was set, the case was automatically reviewed in 25 years. Once the 2003 Act came into force, the judge in the case could make a whole-life order and the right to review after 25 years was removed.

In January 2012, an ECHR Chamber of Court held by four votes to three that there had been no violation of the convention. The case was referred to the Grand Chamber and the hearing was held in Strasbourg on November 2012.

Counsel for the UK argued the aim of the 2003 Act was to remove the executive from the decision-making process.

Life-long sentencing reflected the view “there are some crimes so grave that they were deserving of lifelong incarceration for the purposes of pure punishment”.

The applicants accepted a life prisoner could spend the rest of his life in detention because he remained a risk to the community, but a whole-life order imposed purely for the purposes of punishment “directly undermined human dignity” and “destroyed the human spirit”.

Of the 46 other states signed up to the convention, life imprisonment did not exist in nine, the court heard, and some 32 countries had life imprisonment with a mechanism for review after a set period.

Ireland had the shortest such period, with a parole board review after seven years and Turkey had the longest – up to 36 years in some situations.

In a further five countries there was no provision for parole, but prisoners could apply to have life sentences commuted.

The court found Article 3 must be interpreted as requiring “reducibility of the sentence”. This would require a review by authorities to consider whether “any changes in the life prisoner are so significant as to mean that continued sentencing can no longer be justified”.

“Where domestic law does not provide for the possibility of such a review, a whole-life sentence will not measure up to the standards of Article 3 of the convention.”

But it said it was for national authorities to decide when a review should take place, though it supported a review after 25 years.

It emphasised that the finding of a violation in the applicants’ cases should not be understood as giving them any prospect of imminent release.

Release would depend on grounds including whether there was still legitimate reasons for their continued detention, the court said.

It made no award for damages, but did award legal costs of €40,000.

Full judgment available at hudoc.echr.coe.int