If one was to subscribe to the hype created by the popular press then you could not be blamed for believing that within weeks, Britain’s most notorious killers could soon be roaming the streets near you.  This is a misunderstanding, however, of the decision that was handed down by the European Court of Human Rights recently in respect of “whole life’ tariffs.

To give something of the background of this case, three persons who were convicted of murder and handed a whole life sentence made an application to the European Court of Human Rights that to be given such term without the prospect of release or review was inhuman and degrading treatment, and therefore in breach of their human rights. A panel of 17 Judges on hearing submissions and representations on behalf of Jeremy Bamber, Douglas Vinter and Peter Moore determined that a life sentence must contain within it at least the possibility of review or release to remain compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.  Despite their decision, the judges were keen to convey that they did not intend to give the applicants any prospect of imminent release.

What effectively therefore does this mean?  At present, it is understood by a ‘whole life’ term that the person who has committed a crime so heinous as to warrant that sentence will serve literally the rest of his life in prison.  He could only be released by the Justice Secretary on ‘compassionate grounds’ in the circumstances that he should determine that it would be proper to exercise his discretion to do so.

If now the law is reviewed and amended to reflect the European Court ruling in order for it to become consistent with the Convention on Human Rights, then a whole life sentence can still be passed, but within that must be built in the safeguard of review and release as identified by the European Judges.

Almost inevitably there has been a storm of protests by persons who are opposed both to this particular decision and the intervention of the European Courts as a whole.  The Prime Minister was noted to have expressed his disappointment in the decision and the Justice Secretary commented that the British people would find it gruelling, frustrating and hard to understand.

Perhaps there is some merit in comments of one of the applicant’s Solicitors in that in a civilised society, there is a recognition that people may change. Albeit this isn’t the case for every convicted criminal, the present law does not allow for any review and therefore whatever the circumstances. that person remains in custody.

Post the decision, if indeed there is compatible legislation enacted, at some point long into an individual’s life term, a panel must consider as to whether their continued detention is appropriate.  In the course of that assessment, ‘danger presented to society’ is one consideration.  If the detained person has shown no remorse, regret or desire to change, then no doubt the term will be continued.  What is also forgotten amidst the furore of what has been created is that any life sentence means that even on release, the individual will still be subject to licence conditions for what would have been the full length or the term.  This is something which is properly supervised and managed by the Probation Service, and people can be and are recalled when the circumstances dictate.

It is perhaps therefore in summary not such a decision that ought to lead to cause for withdrawal from the system, or indeed has been argued European jurisdiction as a whole, but rather an opportunity for a little mature reflection.