Killers fight Straw's minimum jail terms

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The Independent Online

Two murderers began legal moves yesterday to strip the Home Secretary of his power to increase their minimum sentences in a case that could lead to hundreds of killers applying for a review of their jail terms.

Two murderers began legal moves yesterday to strip the Home Secretary of his power to increase their minimum sentences in a case that could lead to hundreds of killers applying for a review of their jail terms.

Anthony Anderson and John Taylor, both lifers whose tariffs were increased to 20 and 22 years respectively, argue that Jack Straw's power to keep them behind bars is incompatible with the Human Rights Act and Article 6 of the European Convention, which guarantees the right to a fair trial.

Edward Fitzgerald QC, representing the pair in the High Court, insisted that the task of setting what was in effect a sentence should be left to judges, not politicians. The test case goes to the heart of a clash between the Government and the judiciary, which largely believes it should maintain overall responsibility for tariffs.

If the men's application succeeds, notorious killers such as Myra Hindley may be able to challenge increased sentences imposed by Home Secretaries.

A Home Office spokesman said yesterday that hundreds of cases could potentially be affected, although most of the tariffs given to the UK's 3,000 or so mandatory lifers had been set in line with judicial guidelines.

Mr Fitzgerald said successive Home Secretaries had argued that Parliament had granted them the right to set tariffs. However, this had not been its intention, he said. "It is the inaccessibility and partial secrecy of this system ... that is one of its main vices." He called the system "a violation of the fundamental principle of the separation of powers".

Mr Fitzgerald said the Home Secretary had already in effect conceded that he no longer retained the right to set increased tariffs for child murderers following a European Court of Human Rights decision in the case of James Bulger's killers. The QC said the same should apply to adults.

David Pannick QC, for Mr Straw, said: "The Secretary of State says that the mandatory life sentence is imposed by Parliament as punishment for the offence of murder, and the European Court and the European Commission have both held that it is acceptable for the Secretary of State to decide how long murderers should serve as punishment."