The Strasbourg court’s ruling on whole-life jail sentences certainly seems to have hit a nerve. I’ve often been very critical of the European Court of Human Rights in this blog, but I think I’ll just watch the latest heaving bandwagon of ECHR-bashing trundle past.
The so-called landmark ruling has set the ECHR on a fresh collision course with the UK government, but, in this case, you have to wonder if the brouhaha is really warranted. In a collective knee-jerk reaction worthy of Premier League chairmen, Tory cabinet ministers including the prime minister, Chris Grayling, the justice secretary, and Theresa May, the home secretary, have all voiced their “profound disagreement”. Grayling said the ruling would leave the original authors of the European convention on human rights “turning in their graves” and said it reinforced his determination to curtail the role of the Strasbourg court.
Personally, I think the original authors might be shaking their heads a little, but they would probably refrain from the considerable physical exertion of turning in their graves and save that for more egregious examples of the ECHR overreaching its remit.
In its decision, the Strasbourg court said there had been a violation of article 3 of the European convention on human rights, which prohibits inhuman and degrading treatment: “For a life sentence to remain compatible with article 3 there had to be both a possibility of release and a possibility of review.”
What Grayling and co neglected to contemplate was the court’s statement that “the finding of a violation in the applicants’ cases should not be understood as giving them any prospect of imminent release. Whether or not they should be released would depend, for example, on whether there were still legitimate penological grounds for their continued detention and whether they should continue to be detained on grounds of dangerousness. These questions were not in issue.” Life sentences are typically reviewed after 25 years in other countries.
The ruling does not mean that convicted murderers like Jeremy Bamber, Peter Moore and Douglas Vinter are likely to be let loose on the public any time soon. It just means their cases should be reviewed. They can apply for release, but, if, as seems likely, they are still deemed to be dangerous, their applications can simply be refused.