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United Kingdom: Whole life sentences are compatible with European human rights law

Judges have agreed that whole life imprisonment does not breach European human rights law, rejecting a complaint from a convicted murderer against the United Kingdom.

In its 17 January Grand Chamber judgment in the case of Hutchinson v. the United Kingdom (application no. 57592/08) the European Court of Human Rights held, by 14 votes to 3, that there had been:

no violation of Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The case concerned the complaint by a man serving a whole life sentence for the murder of three members of a family and the rape of another that his sentence amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment as he had no hope of release.

The court reiterated that the European Convention did not prohibit the imposition of a life sentence on those convicted of especially serious crimes, such as murder. However, to be compatible with the convention there had to be both a prospect of release for the prisoner and a possibility of review of their sentence.

The court considered that the UK courts had dispelled the lack of clarity in the domestic law on the review of life sentences. The discrepancy identified in a previous ECtHR judgment2 between the law and the published official UK policy had notably been resolved by the UK Court of Appeal in a ruling affirming the statutory duty of the Secretary of State for Justice to exercise the power of release for life prisoners in such a way that it was compatible with the European Convention.

In addition, the Court of Appeal had brought clarification as regards the scope and grounds of the review by the Secretary of State, the manner in which it should be conducted, as well as the duty of the Secretary of State to release a whole life prisoner where continued detention could no longer be justified.

The European court highlighted the important role of the Human Rights Act, pointing out that any criticism of the domestic system on the review of whole life sentences was countered by the HRA as
it required that the power of release be exercised and that the relevant legislation be interpreted and applied in a Convention-compliant way.

The court therefore concluded that whole life sentences in the United Kingdom could now be regarded as compatible with Article 3 of the European Convention.

More information

Factsheet: Life imprisonment

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