The current situation ignores "a cardinal principle of morality, justice and democratic government" - that the prison term to be served should be announced in open court, Lord Bingham told an audience of senior police officers.
Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, moved quickly, however, to quash any possibility of the Government taking up Lord Bingham's proposal. And victims' families angrily rejected the proposal as "ludicrous".
In his speech, Lord Bingham rejected the argument that murder was such a uniquely evil crime that only a life term would do, as "at best, a quarter truth". Murders varied greatly and it was "unjustifiable" to treat them all the same, he said.
He cited as an example the case of paratrooper Lee Clegg, who was jailed for life for the murder of a joyrider in Belfast. Although Clegg has been granted a retrial, Lord Bingham said that even if he was guilty as originally charged, he did not deserve the same sentence as a mass murderer such as Fred West.
Lord Bingham said the real problem lay in the obligation to pass a life sentence on all murderers. And he added that the current rules ignored the cardinal principle that the prison term to be served should be announced in open court.
At present, all murderers are automatically jailed for life. The judge in secret recommends a term of years to be served - the "tariff" - but this can be altered by the Lord Chief Justice and the Home Secretary. Once the tariff is served, the Home Secretary decides when the killer should be released.
That means that the life sentence "is no more than a formula which gave no real clue to the offender, to the victim's family, to the media or to the public at large, what in practical terms of years to be served in prison the sentence meant", Lord Bingham said.
In his response, the Home Secretary said mandatory life sentences were necessary to protect the public and ensure that the punishment imposed on criminals fitted their crime. "Murder is very different from all other categories of offence. The public expect and require greater protection from murderers," Mr Straw said.
Lord Bingham was accused of being "completely out of touch with reality" by Norman Black, of Support After Murder and Manslaughter, whose girlfriend was murdered four years ago. "It's an insult to the bereaved who are left behind," he said. "We don't want revenge but we do want retribution ...
"Proper sentencing won't bring anyone back but it will give us a sense of justice. To try and do away with the life sentence is simply degrading to us."
Lord Bingham's proposal was welcomed, however, by the civil rights group Liberty. "Mandatory life sentences prevent the court giving a sentence that is appropriate and just," Liberty director John Wadham said. "They allow politicians to interfere with sentencing and allow them to decide when another person should be released from prison - matters which should be left to the courts."Reuse content