Taylor criticises `anomalies' over mandatory life terms

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The Independent Online
The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor, yesterday called on Parliament to take urgent action over "anomalies" affecting appeals against life sentences.

In some cases the law prevented life sentence prisoners appealing against the minimum period they had been recommended to serve. But in other cases appeals were allowed.

Lord Taylor's call came after he had ruled that the Court of Appeal was powerless to help a man serving an "excessive" 20-year recommended minimum of a life sentence for murder.

In yesterday's case, an appeal by Ian Leaney, 27, against the 20-year minimum he was recommended to serve by Judge Gower at Lewes Crown Court last November, for stabbing to death a 21-year-old black Sudanese student, was dismissed.

The court was told that Ali Ibrahim was murdered in Brighton after a "brushing of shoulders" which resulted in Leaney cutting his lip on a can of lager he was drinking.

The court held that minimum terms recommended in murder cases, where life imprisonment is mandatory, cannot be challenged by way of appeal or judicial review. In such cases, a prisoner must rely on written representations to the Home Secretary, who has the final say on whether to enforce the recommended minimum.

The anomaly, Lord Taylor said, was in the fact that minimum term orders made under "discretionary" life sentences - which can be imposed for serious offences such as rape, arson and wounding with intent - were open to appeal.

Parliament ought to reconsider the situation and "it may well be thought that the same openness and the same criteria" should apply in relation to mandatory life sentences.

Judge Gower told Leaney there was "an element of racialism" in the stabbing and, in the light of his past record, he was a continuing danger.

Lord Taylor said neither the prosecution nor any witness described the murder as racial. Leaney had convictions for assault, possessing a firearm and affray involving threats to use a crossbow. But, even allowing for a racial element, the 20-year recommended minimum was inappropriate and excessive. Lord Taylor said there was clear authority from four previous Lord Chief Justices that there was no appeal from minimum-term recommendations.

That authority was to the effect that such a recommendation was not part of the sentence. It was advice - sometimes given privately in writing through the Lord Chief Justice - to the Home Secretary and formed part of the material he had to consider in deciding how long a prisoner should serve.

With discretionary life sentences, a judge had the power to state how long should be served as punishment and deterrence. This was part of the judge's order, it was dealt with in open court and was open to appeal. Lord Taylor said: "The regime we have described involves a number of anomalies and ought to be reconsidered by Parliament as a matter of urgency."