A unanimous decision by the European Court of Human Rights swept away the powers of the Home Secretary to decide whether or not to release young murderers. It also forces the Government to set up an independent "court- like" body to review the detention "at her majesty's pleasure" of juveniles aged between 10 and 18 who have killed - about 15 a year.
The ruling will not immediately affect the fate of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, the 11-year-olds who killed Jamie Bulger. They still have several years to serve before they will be considered for release. But lawyers said yesterday the ruling is likely to boost their claim in the European courts that the Home Secretary had no powers to set the "tariff", the minimum sentence they should serve. In their case, the Home Secretary has set the tariff at 15 years - far higher than the eight-year sentence handed down by the trial judge and that of 10 years recommended by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor of Gosforth.
In the face of yesterday's defeat, Mr Howard was anxious to stress that the Strasbourg judges had not abolished his role in setting minimum terms. But lawyers said if the European judges had ruled out political involvement in deciding release dates "it was only a matter of time" before they decided that the same executive involvement in setting tariffs was also a breach of human rights. Last night, Jamie's mother, Denise Bulger, made a personal appeal to the Home Secretary to fight any European court ruling which could lead to the early release of his two killers.
This latest blow dealt by the court to the Government immediately prompted protests from the Tory backbenches of European "meddling". John Redwood, the former minister and arch Euro-sceptic said: "We must look again at our relationship with both this court, and with the European Court of Justice, and we must assert Parliamentary sovereignty and British judicial independence rather more strongly."
But the more conciliatory Conservative voices, including that of Sir Ivan Lawrence, chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, joined Labour and the Liberal Democrats in saying the ruling simply underlined the need to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into British law.
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