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European Court rules whole life tariffs breach human rights

The British government wants to opt out of the European Arrest Warrant

Whole life tariffs without review ruled unlawful and a breach of human rights

In a ruling this week that has unsurprisingly upset Downing Street, Conservative party backbenchers and right-wing campaigners, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that whole life tariffs as currently handed down by British courts are unlawful.

Whilst making it clear that the court was not offering prisoners serving whole life tariffs any imminent prospect of release, the European Court judges have made it equally clear that offering no hope of rehabilitation, release or redemption is “degrading and inhumane treatment” under the European Convention.

The case was brought by Jeremy Bamber and others before the European Court’s Grand Chamber of appeal from the lower court. All the appellants had been convicted of murder, often with multiple victims.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron was said to be “very, very, very, very disappointed with the ruling.”

As readers of would expect, ministers – including the Home Secretary, Justice Secretary and others – have been much less restrained in their criticism of the court, some using language such as “bizarre“, “mad” and “incomprehensible“.

These comments from the likes of Theresa May and Chris Grayling offer us a window into the soul of the Conservative led coalition government that seems to be constantly at war; both with itself and in particular, with the European Court of Human Rights.

However, in a further case this week, the same European court ruled that the U.K.’s refusal to pay compensation to those convicted, jailed and then released on appeal was not a breach of their human rights.

Because that ruling happened to go the government way, despite the fact that it now means there is little chance of any compensation even if one has spent many years in jail for a crime committed by somebody else, the justice secretary, Chris Grayling said he was “pleased that the European Court had agreed with and upheld the decision of the British courts.”

In other words, the British government only dislikes the European Court when it points out that Britain has got it wrong on the law; the law by the way that Britain signed up to freely, knowingly and in the full understanding that all British law was and continues to be subject to the European Convention on Human Rights.

One could be tempted to say that Prime Minister Cameron’s government, always with one eye on the next general election, is rather akin to a naughty child which, used to getting its own way, throws a tantrum every time its parents enforce very necessary discipline upon it.

Regrettably however, the basis of the court’s judgement is likely to provoke a reaction similar to that that followed the ruling of the UK Supreme Court when it ruled that sex offenders must have the opportunity to apply to come off the sex offenders register when subject to its requirements indefinitely.

The result in that case was that the Home Secretary very reluctantly brought in a review mechanism, available to the offender only when they had been released from prison for 15 years and which left the decision-making process in the hands of the police; an impossible situation for any senior police officer who is tasked both with making an impartial and fair judgement on whether to release someone from the requirements of the sex offenders register whilst at the same time being tasked with protecting the public from sex offenders. believes therefore that it is likely therefore that in the case of this most recent ruling from the European Court, ministers will bring in a similar right of appeal but so designed as to make it almost impossible for any whole life sentenced prisoner to reach the release threshold.

Whilst right-wing public opinion and that of ill informed but manipulative newspapers such as the Sun and the Daily Mail inevitably condemn the court for even daring to suggest that murderers with whole life tariff should ever be released, it would be wise for such critics to consider the fact that prison is, according to Mr Grayling and the Home Secretary, Theresa May a place of both punishment and rehabilitation.

However, we would point out that it is by definition impossible to further the interests of rehabilitation in a closed environment if there is no prospect or hope of ever being released.

If the likes of Chris Grayling and Theresa May want our prisons to be places of punishment and punishment alone – mainly to attract right-wing votes – they should say so; not try and hedge their bets in the hope of sounding reasonable when in fact, were they given their own way without the constraints of the European Court, all prisoners in Britain would be locked up for very much longer than they currently are.

It must be emphasised however that according to the Law, when an individual is sent to prison, it is his or her loss of liberty that is the punishment and nothing else. The Law also expects rehabilitation to be available to all prisoners, regardless of their offence or sentence.

Grayling has stated several times that he wants prison “to be a place of punishment”; something that is directly contrary to the law that he and other ministers are suppose to uphold.

Readers should also be aware that sentences in Britain are already much harsher and much longer than those handed down in almost any other European country, yet other countries have much less of a crime problem and very many fewer prisoners.

France for example has a very similar population to the UK but has just half the number of prisoners. The UK has more life-sentenced prisoners than all the other countries in Europe put together and a sentencing regime that is slowly but surely becoming more and more like that of the United States.

Britain however is not part of the United States – but it is part of Europe and, despite what some politicians say or promise, is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.¬†has on many occasions tried to make the point that Britain’s penal policy is entirely politically driven and has nothing to do with justice and is enforced by highly ambiguous, sometimes totally incomprehensible laws which rely for their effectiveness solely on the integrity of juries.

Unfortunately, it is increasingly the case that the members of such juries sometimes cannot string a coherent sentence together, let alone make a considered or impartial judgement on whether a defendant is guilty or not-guilty.

As we have pointed out previously, this mechanism suits the government very well indeed as ministers are absolved of all responsibility for miscarriages of justice and excessive punishment.

However, this side-stepping of responsibility also discourages  MPs (and also most of the public) from having any real interest in rehabilitation in order that those convicted may rejoin society and become contributing members of the same.

The government has six months to consider this wek’s judgement from the European Court.

During this period of reflection, we would suggest that ministers consider how to incorporate the requirements of the court’s ruling into British law without giving in to the temptation that befell Theresa May over sex offenders.

For clarity, that is the temptation to slap the court in the face by making any review mechanism extremely difficult to administer fairly and deliberately making release from prison almost impossible.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron has stated that he is a “strong supporter of whole life sentences”, presumably because he is too weak and frightened to suggest that he might actually believe in real rehabilitation instead of endless punishment.

The fear of criticism from the media and the press – not to mention campaign groups and charities – will always be at the forefront of his mind as the next election approaches.

The fact is however, that Britain is obsessed with punishment, retribution and revenge and never gives any true consideration to the value of genuine rehabilitation; the point being that having numerous organisations which employ hundreds of thousands of people and that are allegedly “supporting ex-offenders and furthering their rehabilitation”, is not the same as engaging in true rehabilitation where once an offender has served his sentence, he is regarded as a free man.

It is also worth considering that with all the post-release monitoring, MAPPA, regular police visits and numerous databases which are used to deny employment to ex-offenders – sometimes even to those who have committed no criminal offence – no one who has ever been accused of a serious offence in Britain, is ever truly free again. believes that the self-interest of Britain’s politicians, our so-called Criminal Justice System and of those who rely on it for their income, should not be the priority when considering the liberty of citizens; which is undoubtedly the situation that currently exists in the UK.

Instead, true justice, fairness and the possibility of rehabilitation (in the true sense of the word) should be at the top of the list every time; even if that means ambitious, greedy and sometimes not very intelligent politicians have to stand up and be counted as being more in favour of true justice and hope, rather than endless punishment, imprisonment and – according to some – even death.

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4 Responses to European Court rules whole life tariffs breach human rights

  1. Tom Brown
    August 26, 2013 at 4:00 pm

    I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to paint this as a right vs left battle. On most issues I would consider myself pretty firmly in the liberal camp, and I think it’s vitally important that our justice system takes the rehabilitation of offenders more seriously.

    Having said that I do believe that for certain crimes life should mean life. I think we have a duty to the families of victims to ensure that punishment for the most depraved cases is exceptionally severe. I wouldn’t advocate the death penalty but I don’t believe that these criminals should have the right to earn their freedom back, regardless of whether they still pose a threat or not.

  2. Pumpkin Pete
    July 14, 2013 at 10:16 pm

    The whole principle of ‘fairness’ in our judicial system is now surely being totally subjucated to the interests of a ‘here today-gone tomorrow’ political whim and fancy. How any society’s so called leaders could refuse to allow compensation to be paid to a former prisoner who has now been released after that same society’s senior judiciary have granted his appeal against wrongful conviction and imprisonment, is surely one of the most clear and disdainful signs that the leadership, perhaps in judicial propriety, and most certainly in politics have a foul sickness in their professional outlook and duty to their subjects which knows no bounds or limits. Please God, or someone, help us all avoid their plague in this lost and forsaken group of islands.

  3. smiler
    July 14, 2013 at 4:46 pm

    Typical misleading arguments by the press. Do people really believe that it now means that these folk will be released in the near future?

    It is a bit like the Stuart Hall case with the politicians and pressure groups fart-arsing about, saying how leniently he has been treated, blah blah blah.

    Look, he pleaded guilty – the maximum sentence he could get was 2 years, with credit for a guilty plea this would be taken down to 16 months. He got 14 months – hardly lenient in the eyes of the law. So let’s all howl and keep him locked up for those 2 extra months, then everything will be ok won’t it.

  4. Jackie
    July 14, 2013 at 11:28 am

    The Sun and the Daily Mail said these people could be released due to this ruling – which is dreadfully misleading and manipulative.

    This is the first article I have seen that actually explains this ruling properly, the main point being that under the law, everyone is entitled to the chance of rehabilitation.

    As usual, the UK is more interested in being vindictive, full of hatred and devoid of compassion.

    Great article. I have emailed the Sun and Mail to tell them to read it; they might learn something.

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