European Court to rule on 'whole life tariff' legality of triple murderer Arthur Hutchinson

For 'whole life tariff' prisoners the only hope of a change in their sentence is the Home Secretary’s intervention on compassionate grounds

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The Independent Online

One of the UK’s most notorious killers will learn this week whether he has anything more than the faintest of hopes of ever leaving prison. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg is set to rule whether triple murderer Arthur Hutchinson should be eligible for release from Frankland prison, Durham.

Should the court find in favour of the 73-year-old it will be the latest twist in a long-running legal duel between Europe and the UK over ‘whole life tariffs’ – sentences passed on prisoners guilty of “heinous” crimes, such as a multiple murders, regarded as so serious and such a threat to the public they must remain in jail for the rest of their lives.

There are currently 56 prisoners serving such sentences in the UK, including Moors murderer Ian Brady.

Arthur Hutchinson is one of them. He was sentenced to life in prison in 1984 after the murder of Basil Laitner, his wife, Avril, and their son Richard. Hutchinson was initially sentenced with a minimum recommended term of 18 years but the late Leon Brittan, then Home Secretary, intervened to ensure the murderer’s life sentence would mean life.

Hutchinson had previously served nine years in prison for the attempted murder of his brother-in-law. At the time of the Sheffield murders he was on the run from police after being linked to a separate rape offence.

For men like him the only hope of a change in their sentence is the Home Secretary’s intervention on compassionate grounds. His lawyers argue having this as the only mechanism for reconsidering a sentence is too arbitrary.

Hutchinson’s case is the latest is a long running tussle between the Strasbourg court and the British government. In 2013, three convicted murderers, Jeremy Bamber, Peter Moore and Douglas Vinter, won an appeal against the government in the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds that such sentences contravened Article 3 of the Human Rights Act – which protects European citizens from “degrading treatment or punishment”.

During that appeal, Peter Weatherby QC, representing the three, 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 the UK was almost alone in Europe in imposing irreducible life sentences; he added England and Wales has more prisoners serving life sentences, 13,000, than the rest of the Council of Europe states put together.

The court ruled that whilst it is legal to sentence a criminal to life imprisonment, there must be a prospect of reviewing such sentences after 25 years.

Last year the Court of Appeal found the UK did offer prisoners opportunities to have their sentence re-examined. Lord Thomas told judges they should continue to apply the use of the tariff as they had before, meaning there have been no legal changes in light of Strasbourg’s initial ruling.

Currently the only way for a prisoner serving a whole life sentence to be released is if the Home Secretary agrees on compassionate grounds. The only instance of this power being used was in 1999, when three IRA prisoners were released as part of the Good Friday Agreement.

Jack Straw also released gangster Reggie Kray weeks before his death in 2000, however the Home Office never confirmed to the public whether Kray had been on a ‘whole life tariff’.

Hutchinson’s lawyers have asked the Strasbourg judges to consider whether the Home Secretary’s ability to free prisoners is sufficient to ensure Britain is obeying Article 3. In their previous decision the Grand Chamber ruled that only allowing a prisoner to be released on “compassionate grounds” did not constitute a true prospect for release.

Should the European court reaffirm their previous statements the domestic courts in the UK would be bound to “take into account” Strasbourg’s decision. This would not mean the shortening of sentences for any prisoners serving a life sentence. However it could mean that nine prisoners who have been serving sentences since before 1990 may be entitled to have their sentences reconsidered.

Any concession to Hutchinson is guaranteed to upset the families of his victims. On hearing of Hutchinson’s appeal, a spokesperson for them said:

“Whenever the name Arthur Hutchinson rears its ugly head, it does nothing but create fear and distress to the victims of this heinous crime...Let the Human Rights judiciary members be thrust into our position for just a day and maybe they would understand this.”