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Monday, 8 July, 2002, 17:06 GMT 18:06 UK
Judge urges life sentence shake-up
Harold Shipman
Blunkett ruled Shipman will never be released
The most senior judge in England and Wales says there is a strong case for a review of whether to impose life sentences for all murders.

Lord chief justice Lord Woolf also wants home secretaries to lose their final say over when notorious killers - such as Moors Murderer Myra Hindley and Dr Harold Shipman - can be considered for release.


To have life sentences for all different kinds of murder is inappropriate

Lord Woolf
But Prime Minister Tony Blair's official spokesman immediately hit back, insisting: "He believes that it is important the home secretary should retain this right, given his accountability to Parliament."

Unveiling the Court of Appeal criminal division's annual review, Lord Woolf called for a near halving in the prison population and better funding for the criminal justice system.

A review of life sentences was needed, said Lord Woolf, because "murders differ immensely", comparing a "mercy killing" of a terminally-ill loved one with a contract killing.

Judicial precedence

"There is an argument that to say to have life sentences for all different kinds of murder is inappropriate," he said.

"This is, however, a subject which is highly sensitive and highly political and one where Parliament should have a very significant say."

But he stressed: "Slowly but surely the role of the home secretary in relation to life tariffs is being reduced.

"My own view is that the question of setting and recommending minimum terms in the case of life prisoners is a role which should really be performed by the judiciary."

'Public confidence'

A Home Office spokeswoman said Home Secretary David Blunkett was determined to retain his power to decide if killers should be freed.

"The home secretary has always made clear his views on the setting of tariffs for adult murderers," the spokeswoman said on Monday.

"The government believes it is necessary for the maintenance of public confidence in the criminal justice system that decisions relating to the length of time a murderer spends in custody and release are taken by the home secretary, who is directly accountable to Parliament."


Setting tariffs has to be a role for judges and not politicians

Liberty
The home secretary can no longer determine minimum sentences for child killers, after a European court ruling in the case of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, who murdered Merseyside toddler James Bulger.

Another European ruling means the home secretary now only has influence in the most serious murder cases, the so-called "whole life tariffs".

However, a case due to be heard by the House of Lords later this year is expected to weaken or even collapse his ability to intervene in these cases too.

Accountability

A victory in the Lords by convicted killers Anthony Anderson and John Taylor, could open the floodgates for 22 murderers with "whole life" tariffs, including Myra Hindley, to have new minimum terms decided by the Lord Chief Justice.

Roger Bingham, spokesman for Liberty, the civil rights group, agreed ministers should not make sentencing decisions.

"Setting tariffs has to be a role for judges and not politicians," he said.

"Ministers have too many influences on them. It is difficult for them to be scrupulously fair because they will always have one eye on how their decisions will be received in the focus groups and in the headlines."

But Norman Brennan, director of the Victims of Crime Trust, insisted life tariff decisions should remain with the home secretary.

Investment call

"Recent surveys have shown that many victims and members of the public see sentences handed out by the judiciary as very inadequate," he said.

"Politicians are elected and accountable - judges are not."

Lord Woolf said the criminal justice system needed investment to overcome under funding in the same way as other public services.

He said ministers had stressed the importance of having a probation service which runs community punishments in which the public have full confidence.

But at the same time, probation budget problems meant they were having trouble producing "critical" reports for judges, he said.

He said he wanted to see the prison population fall by 30,000, from its current all time high of more than 71,000.

See also:

04 Jul 02 | England
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