European Court of Human Rights rules that irreducible life sentences violate human dignity

Vinter and others v United Kingdom (Application nos. 66069/09, 130/10 and 3896/10) III ECHR 317 (9 July 2013)

Summary

In 2013, the European Court of Human Rights held that it is a violation of human dignity to deny life prisoners any prospect of release or review of their sentence.

Facts

The applicants in Vinter were three men who had been convicted of murder in the UK. Each was serving a sentence of life imprisonment.

Under the UK’s Criminal Justice Act 2003, a life sentence is mandatory for murder. When imposing this sentence, the trial judge must also set a minimum term of imprisonment. In exceptional cases, the judge may set a “whole life order” instead of a minimum term. The applicants were subject to whole life orders.

The three applicants alleged that their sentences were inconsistent with article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights. This article provides that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.

The Fourth Section of the European Court of Human Rights initially heard the complaints. The Fourth Section held that, for all three applicants, imprisonment was still justified by the legitimate goals of punishment and deterrence. Hence, no article 3 violation could arise until imprisonment was no longer necessary to fulfil these goals.

The applicants requested that the Court’s Grand Chamber rehear their complaints.

Decision

The law

The Grand Chamber recognised that States retain discretion to determine the appropriate lengths of sentences, so long as they are not “grossly disproportionate” to the offences committed. This discretion may extend to imposing life sentences. However, the Court reiterated its earlier decision in Kafkaris v Cyprus (Application no. 21906/04) [2008] ECHR that irreducible life sentences may infringe article 3.

The Grand Chamber elaborated upon the meaning of reducible in two ways. First, it emphasised that reducible does not necessarily require an actual reduction in sentence, where a life prisoner remains a danger to the public.

Second, the Grand Chamber held that a reducible life sentence involves both a possibility of review and a prospect of release. Review of a sentence is necessary because the grounds for detention (punishment, deterrence, public protection and rehabilitation) may change in relevance during lengthy imprisonment. Without fixing a time limit, the Court noted the support in European domestic and international law for a guaranteed review within the first 25 years of a sentence.

A prospect of release is necessary because, in the Grand Chamber’s view, the weight of European and international law support the principle that all prisoners, including those serving life sentences, be offered the possibility of rehabilitation and the prospect of release if that rehabilitation is achieved.. Drawing on these sources, the Grand Chamber concluded that it would be a violation of human dignity to detain someone without any chance of release.

Finally, the Grand Chamber rejected the Fourth Section’s conclusion as to when an article 3 violation arises. It held that, if a sentence is irreducible upon imposition, then it is immediately incompatible with article 3. This is because it would be “capricious” to expect a prisoner to attempt rehabilitation not knowing if at an unspecified, future date, a mechanism might be introduced which would allow him, on the basis of that rehabilitation, to be considered for release.

Application

The Grand Chamber held (by 16 votes to one) that the applicants’ sentences were not reducible and violated article 3.

First, it observed that the 2003 Act did not include a twenty-five year review mechanism, as previous legislation did.

Second, it held that there was a lack of clarity as to the current law concerning the prospect of release of life prisoners. Only the Secretary of State administering the UK’s prison system could release a ‘whole of life’ prisoner. The Court of Appeal of England and Wales had previously held that the Secretary must exercise this release power when further detention would be incompatible with article 3 (see R v Bieber [2009] 1 WLR 223). However, the Secretary’s policy on release proposed that parole would only be available con compassionate grounds to terminally ill or seriously incapacitated prisoners; article 3 was not acknowledged. The Grand Chamber accepted that the Secretary of State may, in practice, exercise their power conformably with Article 3.  However, it held that the uncertainty as to when the Secretary will release someone (beyond the limited compassionate grounds) meant that life prisoners did not have a sufficient prospect of release.

Having found violations of article 3, the Grand Chamber treated these findings as just satisfaction for the breaches and awarded no other remedies.

Other relevant opinions

The dissentient, Judge Villiger, rejected the majority view that an article 3 issue may arise upon sentencing in these circumstances. However, in a separate opinion, Judge Power-Forde responded to Judge Villiger by stating that the decision only provides for a “right to hope” for release. Judge Mahoney in another concurring opinion also referred to a “faint hope”. This language describes the prospect of release that the decision requires.

Commentary

The decision catalogues a global consensus on the proper goals of detention. Among many citations to international documents, the Grand Chamber referred to Council of Europe materials, the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, and the ICCPR. From these, it evidenced a consensus in international law that the rehabilitation of offenders should be a key aim of penal detention.

Further, the decision reflects this consensus in the evaluation of life imprisonment. It is a strong reminder that respect for human dignity, as reflected in the rehabilitative emphasis in human rights documents like the ICCPR, must extend to those sentenced to life imprisonment.

Australia does not always extend this respect to life prisoners, despite its obligations under the ICCPR. In NSW, those convicted of murder may be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Their sentences may only be reduced if the Executive exercises its prerogative of mercy (see R v Harris (2000) 50 NSWLR 409 [125]). It is unclear whether the prerogative will be used where a life prisoner has shown significant rehabilitation, and so the reducibility of a life sentence is uncertain.

In Victoria, certain life prisoners – including the Hoddle Street murderer Julian Knight and murderers of police officers – may only be paroled when they are “in imminent danger of dying, or [are] seriously incapacitated” (Corrections Act 1986 (Vic) sections 74AAA–74AA). Following Vinter, this limited compassionate parole does not provide a real prospect of release.

Reducibility does not mean that a life sentence must actually be reduced where a prisoner remains dangerous. But laws like those in NSW and Victoria fail to provide a clear method for reducing life sentences in cases of genuine rehabilitation. Ultimately, they may violate human dignity by denying life prisoners even a faint hope of release.

The full text of the decision can be found here.

Matthew Harper is an Assistant Editor of the Melbourne University Law Review.