Convicted murderers win Article 3 case against whole life sentences in Strasbourg
9 July 2013
Vinter and Others v. the United Kingdom (Grand Chamber: application nos. 66069/09, 130/10 and 3896/10) – read judgment
The Strasbourg Court has upheld three applicants’ complaint that their imprisonment for life amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment as they have no hope of release.
The following is a very brief summary of the judgment. A full analysis of the case will follow shortly.
The applicants, Douglas Gary Vinter, Jeremy Neville Bamber and Peter Howard Moore, are British nationals who were born in 1969, 1961 and 1946 respectively. All three men are currently serving sentences of life imprisonment for murder. Bamber murdered five members of his family brought the case along with serial killer Peter Moore and double murderer Douglas Vinter.
The applicants have been given whole life orders, meaning they cannot be released other than at the discretion of the Secretary of State on compassionate grounds (for example, if they are terminally ill or seriously incapacitated). They argued their sentences were “inhuman and degrading” and that being denied any prospect of release was a violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Grand Chamber upheld their claim. They found, by 16 votes to 1, that for a life sentence to remain compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights there had to be both a possibility of release and a possibility of review. UK law concerning the justice secretary’s power to release a whole life prisoner was “unclear”, and, given this lack of clarity
and the absence of a dedicated review mechanism for whole life orders, the Court was not persuaded that, at the present time, the applicants’ life sentences were compatible with Article 3.
The Court fund the circumstances for compassionate release were “highly restrictive”,
Even assuming that they could be met by a prisoner serving a whole life order, the Court considers that the Chamber was correct to doubt whether compassionate release for the terminally ill or physically incapacitated could really be considered release at all, if all it meant was that a prisoner died at home or in a hospice rather behind prison walls.
The judges said it was up to the national authorities to decide when such a review should take place, but said it was “not persuaded” by the reasons adduced by the Government for the decision not to include a twenty-five year review in the current legislation on life sentences in England and Wales, the situation in the UK prior to 2003.
The Court did note that the applicants had not sought to argue that, in their individual cases, there are no longer any legitimate penological grounds for their continued detention.
The applicants have also accepted that, even if the requirements of punishment and deterrence were to be fulfilled, it would still be possible that they could continue to be detained on grounds of dangerousness.
Their victory under Article 3 in the Grand Chamber cannot therefore be understood as giving them the prospect of imminent release.