Controversial whole-life sentences came under the spotlight today as leading judges were urged to uphold the principle that orders preventing killers from ever being released should be imposed for particularly “heinous and serious” crimes.
A panel of five judges, headed by the Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas, heard argument at the Court of Appeal in London on behalf of Attorney General Dominic Grieve that tariffs which mean criminals have to spend the rest of their days behind bars are not “manifestly excessive or wrong in principle”.
James Eadie QC, appearing on behalf of Mr Grieve, argued that if a sentencing court “is of the opinion that, because of the seriousness of the offending, a minimum term should not be fixed, the court must impose a whole-life order”.
Mr Eadie submitted: “The failure to impose a whole-life order in circumstances where the seriousness of the offending requires its imposition renders the sentence imposed unduly lenient”.
The Attorney General referred the case of Ian McLoughlin to the Court of Appeal to consider whether a tariff of 40 years imposed in his case for murdering a man when on day release can be regarded as “unduly lenient” and should be increased.
The court has also been asked to rule on a sentence challenge by Lee Newell, who murdered child killer Subhan Anwar in prison.
Murderer and rapist Matthew Thomas, now 53, from Luton, who killed a newly-wed bride and kidnapped and raped a second woman, also had an appeal application before the court against a whole-life tariff, but after inquiries were made over his sentence it was established that he had not in fact been given such an order - the sentence imposed on him in 2004 was a minimum of 16 years.
Thomas was incorrectly told in 2006 that a whole-life order had been imposed.
After hearing legal argument, Lord Thomas, sitting with Sir Brian Leveson, Lady Justice Hallett, Lord Justice Treacy and Mr Justice Burnett, reserved their decision, which they will announce at a date to be fixed.
At the completion of the proceedings, Lord Thomas said that in the light of the importance of the issue, not just to those directly involved in the case, but “for those who judges have to sentence”, the court would “endeavour to give our judgment as soon as possible.”
Speaking after the hearing, the Attorney General said: “This hearing was about preserving the principle that whole-life orders can be imposed for particularly heinous and serious crimes.
“I asked the Court of Appeal to look again at the sentence handed down to Ian McLoughlin as I believed the sentencing judge mistakenly took into account a decision of the European Court of Human Rights which is inconsistent with the domestic legislation and case law by which he was bound.
“I believed the seriousness of this case required a whole-life order because McLoughlin had a previous conviction for manslaughter in 1984, a conviction for murder in 1992, and because the murder for which he was being sentenced was committed in the course of robbery.”
The Government has said that whole-life tariffs are “wholly justified in the most heinous cases”.
Such terms were deemed a breach of human rights following a successful appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) by murderers Jeremy Bamber, Douglas Vinter and Peter Moore.
Last year the trio won a ruling that their whole-life sentences amount to “inhuman and degrading treatment”.
Whole-lifers should be entitled to a review of their sentence 25 years into their term at the very latest, the Grand Chamber of the Strasbourg-based court said.
The ruling by 17 judges from across Europe sparked further outrage among critics of the court - despite reassurances that the decision did not amount to grounds for imminent release.
Newell, now 45, is challenging a whole-life sentence imposed last September at Warwick Crown Court. He was convicted of the February 2013 murder of convicted child killer Anwar in his cell at Long Lartin Prison, Worcestershire.
He was already serving a life sentence for a previous murder committed in 1988.
Triple killer McLoughlin, 55, was jailed for life at the Old Bailey last October for stabbing a man on his first day-release from prison after 21 years in custody.
When sentencing McLoughlin, the trial judge imposed a 40-year tariff, saying he could not pass a whole-life term because of the European court ruling.
McLoughlin - who had killed twice before - stabbed Graham Buck, 66, as he came to the aid of a neighbour in Little Gaddesden, Hertfordshire, last July
Those currently serving whole-life terms in England and Wales include Moors Murderer Ian Brady, who tortured and murdered children along with accomplice Myra Hindley, and serial killer Rosemary West.
The appeal judges were originally expected to deal with a challenge by Mark Bridger, who was convicted of the murder of five-year-old April Jones, but he had previously abandoned his application for permission to appeal against his whole-life tariff.
During today’s hearing, Mr Eadie said the decision in Europe “does not render the imposition of a whole-life order manifestly excessive or wrong in principle”.
In the case of McLoughlin, the judges heard that he was aware of the proceedings but did not wish for any argument or representations to be made on his behalf.
His stance was explained to the court by barrister Kevin McCartney, who said McLoughlin had not considered the legal aspect, but had approached it from a “purely personal approach”.
It appeared from letters written by McLoughlin that he had been “very anxious at the sentencing hearing” and that this was a “sentiment that carried on... not to act in any way that would cause any further distress to the deceased’s family”.
Mr McCartney said: “That is a factor that played very heavily, as I understand it, in his attitude towards these proceedings.”
It was argued on behalf of the Attorney General that the “failure to impose a whole-life order renders the sentence unduly lenient”.
On behalf of Newell, Joe Stone QC, in seeking permission to appeal against sentence, said that the whole-life term was “manifestly excessive”. The application was opposed by the Crown.
If he was given a 40-year minimum it would give him hope and the “flickering possibility that one day when he is 85 he will be released from prison”, said counsel.