Britain's policy of locking up its most violent criminals indefinitely crushes human dignity and leaves them hopeless and dangerous, Strasbourg judges were told today.
In a last ditch attempt to have his whole life tariff declared “inhuman and degrading”, Jeremy Bamber's case came before the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights – the continent's highest court – along with those of two other murderers.
Bamber, 51, one of the UK's most notorious killers since he murdered his parents, sister and her two little boys back in 1985, is arguing that it breaches his human rights not to have any hope of release.
The case could have major ramifications for 42 of the country's most violent criminals, serving whole life tariffs. Their only chance of release is on compassionate grounds if they are close to death though that, judges heard today, had never happened.
At a time when the British government is at loggerheads with the European court over its declaration that it is illegal to operate a blanket ban on prisoner voting, the case will be watched with keen interest within the UK just days after the Court of Appeal ruled that whole life sentences were not a breach of human rights.
Strasbourg judges backed UK policy in January when Bamber, along with gay serial killer Peter Moore, 66, and Douglas Vinter, 43, who strangled and stabbed his wife to death having already served a sentence for murdering a colleague, brought a case before the court.
By a majority of four to three they argued that such a sentence was not "grossly disproportionate" for the country's most notorious criminals and did not violate Article 3 – prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment – of the convention, but allowed an appeal.
Yesterday, before the 21 judges of the Grand Chamber, Pete Weatherby QC, representing Vinter and the two others said: “The imposition of a whole life sentence crushes human dignity from the outset, as it removes any chance, and therefore any hope of release in the future. The individual is left in a position of hopelessness whereby he cannot progress whatever occurs.”
Pointing out that the UK was almost alone in Europe in imposing irreducible life sentences, the barrister added that England and Wales has more prisoners serving life sentences, 13,000, than the rest of the Council of Europe states put together.
Mr Weatherby argued that England and Wales – such sentences without reappraisal cannot be imposed in Scotland or Northern Ireland – should return to its position prior to 2003 when a case could be reviewed by the Home Secretary after 25 years.
“We don't say that these applicants should necessarily ever be released, just that they should not have all prospect of future release taken away at the outset of their sentence, said the barrister.
He pointed out that such sentences created a “cohort of outcasts”, a danger to other prisoners and staff with no incentive to conform.
Only recently Vinter admitted stabbing a fellow inmate, a convicted sex offender, because he had no hope of release and nothing to lose.
Arguing on behalf of the government, David Perry QC told the court that whole life tariffs were only imposed for the most “heinous crimes”: “It is a sentence of last resort, the rarest of the rare. The government submit that such a sentence does not violate article 3......The policy in the UK is that some crimes are so serious that they require, a proportionate response, lifelong incarceration.”
He pointed out that the court had approved the extradition of Babar Ahmad, who faces a life sentence without parole in the United States if convicted on terrorism charges, and it would be inconsistent of the court to find such a sentence a breach of the convention.
He added: “The government does not accept that its position is either irrational or emotional. It has been supported by successive Lord Chief Justices. It has been supported by the House of Lord in its judicial capacity and it has been supported, most recently, by the Court of Appeal.”
The Grand Chamber verdict is expected next year. Bamber, who has always maintained the killings were carried out by his sister before she committed suicide, is also challenging his conviction through the UK courts and is due to renew his application for a judicial review at the High Court tomorrow.