Whole-life sentences: 'Life means life' for worst offenders ruled legal by Court of Appeal

Court rejected claims that whole-life orders, where there is no prospect of a prisoner being released, were 'wrong in principle'

The principle of whole-life jail sentences for killers was backed today by judges following a clash between Britain and the European Court of Human Rights.

A panel of five judges at the Court of Appeal backed the Government’s argument that “life should mean life” in the “most heinous cases”. Seven months ago the Strasbourg-based human rights court had said all convictions should be reviewed after 25 years regardless of the offences committed.

The impasse meant that sentencing in several high-profile criminal cases had been put on hold, including the terms to be handed out to soldier Lee Rigby's murderers, pending the judgment.

Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas, who headed the panel, said the court had held that the ability of judges to pass whole-life orders was "entirely compatible" with the European Convention on Human Rights.

"Judges should therefore continue as they have done to impose whole-life orders in those rare and exceptional cases which fall within the statutory scheme.

 The court increased the 40-year minimum prison term being served by killer Ian McLoughlin, who murdered a man while on day release, to a whole-life tariff.

lee-newell-1024.jpgIt also dismissed an appeal by Lee Newell, who murdered a child killer while in prison for another murder, against the whole-life order imposed in his case.

Reacting to the ruling, the Attorney General Dominic Grieve tweeted: "I am pleased CoA (Court of Appeal) has confirmed those who commit the most heinous crimes can be sent to prison for the rest of their lives.”

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Ian McLoughlin: Court of Appeal judges in London increased his 40-year minimum prison term for murdering a man while on day release to a whole-life tariff

The Conservative MP Dominic Raab said: “The UK courts have definitively rejected the ludicrous ruling from Strasbourg demanding the most dangerous criminals are given the chance to be freed. It is a victory for common sense and democracy - and shows the government is right to fight the human rights mission creep tooth and nail.”

Forty-nine English prisoners are currently serving whole-life sentences. The latest to receive the terms are the serial killer Dale Cregan, jailed last year for the murders of four people including policewomen Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone in Manchester, and Mark Bridger who killed five-year old April Jones, from Machynlleth, Powys, in 2012.

In the case of McLoughlin, the judges heard earlier that he was aware of the proceedings but did not wish for any argument or representations to be made on his behalf.

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Lee Rigby's murderers Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale

His stance was explained to the court by barrister Kevin McCartney, who said McLoughlin had not considered the legal aspect, but had approached it from a "purely personal" perspective.

Triple killer McLoughlin, 55, was jailed for life at the Old Bailey last October for stabbing a man on his first day-release from prison after 21 years in custody.

When sentencing McLoughlin, the trial judge imposed a 40-year tariff, saying he could not pass a whole-life term because of the European court ruling.

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Jeremy Bamber has been fighting against whole-life jail terms

On behalf of Newell, Joe Stone QC, in seeking permission to appeal against sentence, had said that a whole-life term was "manifestly excessive".

He was convicted alongside Gary Smith for the February 2013 murder of convicted child killer Anwar in his cell at Long Lartin Prison, Worcestershire. Newell was already serving a life sentence for a previous murder committed in 1988.

Those currently serving whole-life terms in England and Wales include Moors Murderer Ian Brady, who tortured and murdered children along with accomplice Myra Hindley, and serial killer Rosemary West.

Additional reporting by PA