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"Life means life for those who commit the most heinous crimes"

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Yesterday, the Court of Appeal provided the much awaited clarity that judges need when they are considering sentencing on murder cases or the most serious and heinous crimes. Whole life orders were upheld in this landmark ruling.

A panel of five judges led by Sir John Thomas gave the ruling in two murder cases that raised the issue of whether judges could continue to impose whole-life prison sentences on those who commit the most heinous crimes.

In the case of Ian McLaughlin, the court increased a 40 year sentence for the murder of Graham Buck to a whole-life term, following a referral from the attorney general on the grounds that the original sentence was “unduly lenient”.

The Court of Appeal also dismissed convicted murderer Lee Newell’s whole-life sentence which he was arguing was “manifestly excessive”.

These judgments follow a ruling last year in Vinter v UK by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg that whole-life sentences with no system of review breached article 3 rights prohibiting inhuman and degrading treatment.

In yesterday’s judgement that panel of 5 judges held that courts are entitled to impose whole-life terms and that there is an adequate review mechanism where such sentences are imposed. On behalf of the court, Sir John Thomas said that although there may be debate in a democratic society as to whether a judge should have the power to make a whole-life order, some crimes are so heinous that a “just punishment” that is compatible with convention rights includes a whole-life order.

“We do not read the judgement of the Grand Chamber in Vinter as in any way casting doubt on the fact that there are crimes that are so heinous that just punishment may require imprisonment for life. In Vinter, the Grand Chamber accepted that because what constitutes a just and proportionate punishment is the subject of debate and disagreement, states have a margin of appreciation. Under the constitution it is for parliament to decide whether there are such crimes and to set the framework under which the judge decides in an individual case whether whole-life order is the just punishment”.

He ended with “ No specific passage in the judgement nor the judgement read as a whole in any way seeks to impugn the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 which entitle a judge to make at the time of sentence a whole-life order as a sentence reflecting just punishment”.

The panel of 5 judges held that the Grand Chamber was wrong in ruling that the law of England and Wales did not clearly provide for conditions to enable such sentences to be reduced. The law of England and Wales clearly provided for such a regime through section 30 of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997. The law did provide an offender “hope” or the possibility of release in exceptional circumstances.

It will be a matter of interest now to see what the courts will consider to be a most heinous crime and what for instance will distinguish one murder to another murder deemed to be a most heinous crime. It will be interesting to see what will constitute “exceptional circumstances” in the future and we predict there will be a lot more challenges and applications being made for release under section 30 and for refusals of such applications to be judicially reviewed.

MPR Solicitors have years of experience in defending in high-profile murder cases. Members of the firm have acted in some of the most high profile murder cases in recent years including amongst others:

  • Stars in Their Eyes murder
  • Ealing Riots Murder
  • Body under patio murder with links to the Kray twins
  • Love Triangle Murder
  • Lahori Village Murder
  • Baby-shaking Murder case
  • Gangland Murders in West London

Our Serious and Complex Crime Team of Specialist Criminal Defence Solicitors have the expertise to defend all serious allegations from conspiracy cases, murder cases, drugs supply and importation of drugs, money laundering, large-scale benefit fraud; firearms offences, human trafficking, offences of violence, cyber-crime, credit card fraud and any Fraud Act offences.