Monday, 30th July 2012
Human Rights hearing for killers
Europe’s human rights judges will rule on whether British courts’ powers to lock up the most dangerous prisoners for the rest of their lives amounts to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
Murderer Jeremy Bamber and two other killers claim that condemning them to spend the rest of their lives behind bars is against their human rights.
Judges at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) disagreed in January, but the Strasbourg-based court’s Grand Chamber has now agreed to hear a further appeal in November.
The potential human rights row will focus on the lack of a review process for criminals who are given whole-life terms.
It is the latest case where Europe’s human rights court could try to overrule British judges.
In May, Europe’s human rights judges once again ruled against Britain’s blanket ban on prisoners voting and gave the Government six months to change the law.
Prime Minister David Cameron has said the idea of relaxing the ban “makes me physically ill” and officials are working out how to respond to the court’s demand.
A panel of five judges decided the Grand Chamber should hear the appeal after the court ruled earlier this year that condemning people to die in jail was not “grossly disproportionate”.
In each case London’s High Court had “decided that an all-life tariff was required, relatively recently and following a fair and detailed consideration”, the European court said.
It held by four votes to three on January 17 that there had been no violation of Article Three of the European Convention on Human Rights, which is enshrined in UK law in the Human Rights Act and prohibits “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.
The trio of judges in dissent - Poland’s Lech Garlicki, Iceland’s David Thor Bjorgvinsson and Cyprus’s George Nicolaou - focused their criticism on the lack of a review process for criminals who were handed whole-life terms.
“In our opinion it is necessary to have a suitable review mechanism in place right from the beginning,” they said.
“The Article Three problem does not consist merely in keeping the prisoner in detention longer than would be justified, as suggested in the domestic judgments that we have cited.
“It consists, equally importantly, of depriving him of any hope for the future, however tenuous that hope may be.”
Bamber’s solicitor, Simon McKay, said his client was “obviously delighted with the decision”.
“He’s encouraged by it, but he’s realistic and acknowledges that it’s just another stepping point,” Mr McKay said.
“The final analysis will depend on what the Grand Chamber says in the end.”
A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: “The European court upheld the view of our domestic courts that the imposition of whole life tariffs for the most exceptionally serious cases is justified.
“It goes without saying that the Government will be fighting the case vigorously in the Grand Chamber and defending the principle of the whole life tariff.”
Bamber’s legal team originally submitted the application to the ECHR in December 2009.
But their claims were strongly opposed by Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke, who has said the Government has been “fighting the case vigorously and defending the principle of the whole-life tariff”.
Under current law, whole-life tariff prisoners will almost certainly never be released from prison as their offences are deemed to be so serious.
They can be freed only by the Justice Secretary, who can give discretion on compassionate grounds when the prisoner is terminally ill or seriously incapacitated.
The court’s ruling will now be tested by the court’s Grand Chamber after the appeal by killer Douglas Vinter, who stabbed his wife in February 2008.
Vinter’s appeal means the cases of Bamber, who killed his parents, sister and her two young children in August 1985, and Peter Moore, who killed four gay men for his sexual gratification in 1995, will also be considered by the Grand Chamber judges.
Bamber, 51, has been behind bars for more than 25 years for shooting his wealthy adopted parents June and Neville, his sister Sheila Caffell and her six-year-old twin sons Daniel and Nicholas at their farmhouse in Tolleshunt D’Arcy, Essex.
He was given a whole-life tariff after being convicted of the murders in October 1986.
The European court’s Grand Chamber will hear the case in Strasbourg on November 28.