Bingham calls for end to life sentences

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The Independent Online
THE LORD Chief Justice, Lord Bingham, was at loggerheads with the Government yesterday after saying a life sentence should not mean life, and that politicians should not have the right to decide on how long a term a criminal must serve.

He made his views known at a press conference in the High Court in London, where at the same time a barrister for the Home Secretary was arguing that Jack Straw was entitled to tell the Moors murderer Myra Hindley that she will stay in jail for the rest of her life.

Hindley, who has served 32 years for child murders committed with Ian Brady, is appealing on grounds that her "life means life" sentence is unlawful because it puts her beyond any hope of parole. The Court of Appeal decision will also affect 25 other killers, including Peter Sutcliffe, Rosemary West and Dennis Nilsen, who have been told they will never be released.

David Pannick QC, appearing for the Home Secretary, said these people had been responsible for crimes so heinous they should expect "punishment for the rest of their lives. That is a harsh view but it is a view the Home Secretary is entitled to take". He added: "In cases such as hers, the Home Secretary is entitled to say, 'Your crimes are so wicked that, however long you serve, it will not serve the purpose of retribution and deterrence'."

Lord Bingham said he would rather pass sentences of "35 and 40 years" on the worst cases instead of insisting they die behind bars. "It's not for man to stigmatise any fellow citizen as irredeemable; it seems to me there is a possibility for redemption."

Under those tariffs, Hindley could have been released in 2001 or 2006.

Lord Bingham added: "I express the view held by a lot of people other than myself that the determination of criminal punishment is a judicial matter and not an executive one. The consideration how long someone, considerations of risk apart, should serve in prison is best settled by judges. I take issue with the view that murder is an offence different from every other offence, no matter how serious."

Lord Bingham said he recognised that certain lengths of sentence might mean that inmates would die in prison. But he added: "I do myself have concern about a decision that somebody is beyond redemption. This is not a universal view. Some of course do not share it; home secretaries do not share it. I would rather say 35, 40 years, however long it takes."

Lawyers felt he was signalling the disquiet felt by many senior judges over the Hindley issue. But Lord Bingham stressed he was not commenting on any individual case.

In December last year, Lord Bingham ruled on the Hindley case that, under current laws, home secretaries did have the power to decide that a life sentence will mean life. But he did not rule out that one day she could be released "in exceptional circumstances".

The judge at Hindley's trial did not make a recommendation on the minimum term to be served. In l982 the then Lord Chief Justice advised it should be no less than 25 years. That was raised to 30 years in l985 by Leon Brittan, and in l990 David Waddington decided life should mean life. Michael Howard and now Jack Straw concurred.