Judges back Howard over life sentences

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Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, successfully appealed yesterday against one of his many court-room defeats.

Mr Howard, who is also in open conflict with the judiciary over his plans to remove some of judges' discretion on sentencing, was told last month by Lord Justice Turner in the High Court that he had "failed to measure up to the required standard of fairness" when he increased the minimum life sentence of a murderer from 15 to 20 years.

But yesterday in the Court of Appeal, the Master of the Rolls, Sir Thomas Bingham, together with Lord Justice Neill and Lord Justice Hirst, set aside Mr Justice Turner's ruling and said that the Home Secretary's decision to increase the sentence could not be "stigmatised as irrational". The case may now go to the Lords.

The appeal judges stressed in their judgment that they were not concerned whether John Pierson - who was jailed for life in 1985 for the "horrifying and apparently motiveless" murder of his parents - should serve 15 or 20 years and they had no part to play in making that decision.

"It is none of our business, and we have no views on the subject. Nor are we in any way called upon to consider the allocation of sentencing powers between the executive and the judiciary. That again is none of our business.

"We are concerned, and concerned only, to rule upon the lawfulness of the decision."

They also made clear that the case was not a challenge to the Home Secretary personally and, although he is named as the person appealing to the court, this was only because he is the secretary of state responsible for the department.

The judge at Pierson's trial, and the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Lane, recommended that the "tariff" Pierson must serve for retribution and deterrence should be set at 15 years. But Pierson, who maintained his innocence, was told in August 1993 that the Home Secretary had increased his minimum sentence to 20 years.

t Mr Howard has been overruled by the courts in fewer than 10 per cent of judicial review challenges since he became Home Secretary in 1993, Baroness Blatch, Minister of State at the Home Office, told the House of Lords yesterday. She said the cost of defending his decisions in court had been "about pounds 2m" in 1994-95.