Bulger killers decision delayed to autumn

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The Independent Online

Disagreement between the Lord Chief Justice and the parents of James Bulger means a decision on the sentences to be served by the boys convicted of the toddler's murder has been postponed until autumn.

Disagreement between the Lord Chief Justice and the parents of James Bulger means a decision on the sentences to be served by the boys convicted of the toddler's murder has been postponed until autumn.

Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, now in local authority secure accommodation, will reach their 18th birthdays next month without knowing whether they are to be moved to an under-21 detention centre. The Prison Service is also concerned that an injunction preventing publication of recent pictures of the boys expires on their 18th birthdays.

Lord Woolf has told Ralph Bulger and Denise Fergus that they will not be able to express their views in court: all representations about the sentences have to made in written statements. If Lord Woolf recommends the same sentence as the trial judge - eight years - Venables and Thompson could be freed in the next 12 months.

But solicitors for Mr Bulger and Ms Fergus have writtento Lord Woolf saying they believe that under European law they have the right to appear before him to make direct representations.

Robin Makin, solicitor forMr Bulger, said: "We are very unhappy about this." He said that under the European Convention on Human Rights the parents should have a say in court as to the determination of the boys' sentence. He said this is what happened when the case went to the European Court of Human Rightsin Strasbourg. In that ruling the court said it was wrongfor a home secretary, then Michael Howard, to have set a tariff of 15 years.

The trial judge had recommended a minimum sentence of eight years and the late Lord Taylor of Gosforth, who was Lord Chief Justice at the time, suggested 10 years. Earlier this year the present Home Secretary, Jack Straw, followed the ruling and referred the tariff to Lord Woolf.

At a press conference Lord Woolf said that he would "fully explain" his decision in open court because he was aware that, unlike the Home Secretary, he was not subject toparliamentary scrutiny or political debate.

However, he acknowledged that it was open to any of the parties to challenge his decision by judicial review.

Lord Woolf has already asked the Director of Public Prosecutions to take written representations from the Bulger family. Mr Makin described the DPP's role as nothing more than a "glorified postbox". He added: "We should have a chance to influence the framework in which the Lord Chief Justice is to set a full sentence."

In response to the Strasbourg ruling Lord Woolf will be reviewing the tariffs in more than 140 cases involving young people ordered to be detained for life, such as Thompson and Venables, who were 10 when they killed James in 1993.

Lord Woolf acknowledged it was now inevitable that, with the introduction of the Human Rights Act in October, responsibility for deciding tariffs for mandatory life sentences for adults would also be transferred from the Home Secretary to the judiciary. This could mean hundreds of criminals will be given a new sentence.

Lord Woolf said: "I think it is very important that all those involved should have an opportunity to have an input into the process. That is why it has taken longer than the courts would like."