Strasbourg’s human rights’ court is due to issue a judgement this week on a highly controversial case brought by three of Britain’s most notorious murderers.
Jeremy Bamber, 51, infamous for slaying his parents, sister and two nephews, along with gay serial killer Peter Moore and Douglas Vinter, who stabbed and strangled his wife to death after serving a sentence for murdering a colleague, initially lost their case before the European Court of Human Rights. But in November it was appealed before 21 judges of the Grand Chamber and the decision is expected on Tuesday.
If they win it will undoubtedly widen the chasm between the Government and the European court, leading to further calls from right wingers to distance the country from Strasbourg. The UK is already dragging its heels on complying with a Strasbourg judgement that a total ban on prisoner voting is illegal.
If they lose, it will leave England and Wales almost alone in Europe in imposing irreducible life sentences. Currently 42 of the country's most violent criminals are serving whole life tariffs. Their only chance of release is on compassionate grounds if they are close to death though that, judges heard, had never happened.
Lawyers for the three men argued that the policy of locking up the most violent criminals indefinitely crushes human dignity and leaves them hopeless and dangerous. The whole life tariff was, they said, “inhuman and degrading” and created a “cohort of outcasts”, a danger to other prisoners and staff with no incentive to conform.
Last July, Vinter stabbed Roy Whiting, the killer of schoolgirl Sarah Payne, in both eyes with a sharpened toilet brush handle at Wakefield Prison. After admitting wounding with intent before Newcastle Crown Court, he said to Mr Justice Openshaw: “Thank you very much Judge, it has been a pleasure.” Prosecuting, Andrew Kershaw told the court Vinter said to one prison officer: “I am a lifer, I am doing natural life. I will never get out. I have nothing to lose.”
In January last year Strasbourg judges backed the policy by a majority of four to three, arguing 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.
During the appeal, however, 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.
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 Strasbourg 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.”