LETTER: Courts should decide life tariffs

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The Independent Online
From Mr Paul Cavadino

Sir: Only the courts can ultimately decide whether Lord Donaldson is right in questioning the legality of allowing "public confidence" to affect the length of life sentence prisoners' tariffs ("Law Lord revives row over life for Hindley", 17 January). However, under a system in which government ministers rather than judges make such decisions, there is an inevitable risk that "public confidence" will be equated with considerations of electoral popularity and the volume of media protest. It is deeply disturbing that tariffs could be determined on this basis rather than on the merits of the case.

Setting a life-sentence prisoner's tariff is effectively a sentencing decision. It cannot be right for sentences to be decided by a politician under a private procedure which allows the prisoner no right to a hearing, to be present or represented during the decision-making process, or to appeal. Such a process contravenes the fundamental principles of natural justice.

When life sentences are passed for offences other than murder, tariffs are set by the trial judge and are subject to appeal by either the defence or prosecution. The extension of the same procedure to life sentences passed in murder cases is long overdue.

Yours faithfully,

Paul Cavadino

Chair, Penal Affairs Consortium

London, SW9