European court to act over arsonists

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The Independent Online
THE EUROPEAN Court of Human Rights is to order Britain to explain why petty arsonists who have hurt no one are being left in jail for up to 22 years.

After more than a year, the court has declared admissible a test case brought by lawyers campaigning against the Home Office's power to keep minor offenders in jail indefinitely.

The decision follows a series of Independent on Sunday articles highlighting the arsonists' plight.

Barristers have been given strong private hints that the court, which has already granted legal aid, is likely to find Britain guilty of human rights breaches.

The court will hear the case of Roy Bilton, who in 1982 set fire to his bed in a London flat causing damage put at pounds 500. Bilton, 54, was not arrested until nine months later.

The judge hearing his case accepted that the fire 'did not, of course, constitute arson of the most serious kind' but sentenced him to life 'to protect the public from the actions you are liable, perhaps, to take'.

Once Bilton was made a discretionary lifer his fate was in the hands of the Parole Board and the Home Office, which have the power to decide when, if ever, he will be released.

Bilton's lawyers claim Britain has breached the European human rights convention by refusing to allow him to have his detention reviewed by an independent court.

They also claim there is too heavy a burden of proof on lifers to show they are no longer dangerous.

Bilton's case is not the worst: Maurice Bland has been in jail for 21 1/2 years - far longer than most murderers - for setting fire to a barn.

The Home Office has so far refused to reconsider the arsonists' cases. In a recent letter to Barry Sheerman, Labour home affairs spokesman, Michael Jack, the Home Office minister, said that 'the Home Secretary simply has no power to release a life sentence prisoner on licence' without a recommendation from the Parole Board.

The board had regularly reviewed Bilton's and Bland's cases but had always refused to recommend release, he said.