Howard clashes with court over killer's sentence

High Court appeal: Judge backs lifer in fight against Home Secretary over minimum 'tariff'
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The Independent Online

Legal Affairs Correspondent

The Home Secretary Michael Howard clashed with the judiciary again yesterday when the High Court ruled that he had exceeded his powers by increasing the sentence of a double killer.

It was the first successful challenge to a Home Secretary's right to set a life prisoner's minimum sentence, and added to the growing constitutional clash between Government and judges. The simmering row, over a series of judicial criticisms of ministerial acts, boiled over last month when Mr Howard told the Conservative Party conference that he planned to limit judges' discretion on sentencing. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor, quickly responded with a rare public criticism of the Home Secretary.

Criminal law experts argue that judges rather than Home Secretaries should set the tariffs, because they know all the circumstances of the case, and are not swayed by short-term political motives. Paul Cavadino, chairman of the Penal Affairs Consortium, said:"The system whereby the Home Secretary sets tariffs at the outset of a sentence, with no right of appeal, is fundamentally unjust."

In the case decided yesterday, the trial judge in 1984 had given the killer, John Pierson, two life sentences and recommended he serve a minimum of 15 years. Pierson had shot his sleeping mother and father at their remote farmhouse near Oswestry, North Wales, in September that year. In 1988 Douglas Hurd as Home Secretary increased the minimum to 20 years. Michael Howard confirmed the decision earlier this year.

The Home Secretary has the power to increase the judge's recommended sentence, but yesterday Mr Justice Turner limited that power by saying there had to be reasonable grounds, and in this case there had been none. Mr Howard said he would appeal against yesterday's decision. If he loses on appeal, other tariffs increased by Home Secretaries will come into question.

Pierson was told in August 1993 that the Home Secretary had increased his minimum sentence from 15 to 20 years. Overturning that decision, Mr Justice Turner said the Home Secretary "had failed to measure up to the required standard of fairness". The judge said Mr Howard had erred in law in believing that he had "an absolute discretion" to increase a lifer's minimum sentence if he thought fit.

Only in exceptional circumstances, the judge said, could the minister make a decision to increase the period of detention; if, for example, new information on the adverse character of a prisoner came to light.