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Sunday, December 7, 1997 Published at 22:11 GMT

Myra Hindley

What will Hindley's lawyers argue?
image: [ Myra Hindley and Ian Brady were given life sentences in 1966 ]
Myra Hindley and Ian Brady were given life sentences in 1966

Lawyers for the Moors Murderer, Myra Hindley, go to the High Court on Monday to challenge a decision by the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, that she should spend the rest of her life in prison.

Myra Hindley was sentenced to life imprisonment more than 30 years ago for the murder of Lesley Ann Downey, who was 10, and Edward Evans, who was 17. Later, she and her co-defendant, Ian Brady, confessed to other murders. The BBC's Legal Affairs Correspondent, Joshua Rozenberg, explains how the case will be argued in court.

In May 1966, two days after Mr Justice Fenton Atkinson had sentenced Myra Hindley to life imprisonment, he told the Home Secretary he hoped that in the absence of 'some dramatic conversion' she would be "kept in prison for a very long time".

Some 12 years later Lord Widgery, who was then Lord Chief Justice, added his comments to the Home Office file. "I think we should sincerely accept that a life sentence can extend to whole life," he said. "As to any distinction between Brady and Hindley," he added, "I think it will be widely expected that the woman will serve a shorter term. This may seem wholly illogical, but it does accord with sentencing tendencies when [a] man and woman commit a joint offence."

At the beginning of 1982, the new Lord Chief Justice, Lord Lane, said of Brady that "this is the case if ever there is to be one when a man should stay in prison till he dies." Lord Lane said his initial view of Hindley had been the same, although there were material differences between the two cases. The Lord Chief Justice said he had modified his views to some extent, but he did not think that "any term less than 25 years would be appropriate in the circumstances." He confirmed this advice in January 1985.

Nevertheless, in the same month the Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, set a higher 'tariff' for Myra Hindley. The tariff is the minimum period a life prisoner must serve to meet the needs of retribution and deterrence - in other words, the minimum punishment period.

After that period has expired, the Home Secretary decides when it would be safe to release the offender. Hindley's tariff was set, provisionally, at 30 years.

In July 1990, after Hindley had admitted much greater involvement in the murders than she had previously acknowledged, the Home Secretary of the day, David Waddington, decided that the appropriate tariff would be the whole of her life.

Despite further representations by her lawyers, that decision was confirmed in February 1997 by the then Home Secretary, Michael Howard.

In a parliamentary written answer at the beginning of this month, the present Home Secretary, Jack Straw, said he saw no reason to depart from his predecessor's decision to set a 'whole life' tariff.

It is that decision which Myra Hindley's lawyers are challenging. The case will be heard in the High Court by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham, sitting with Mr Justice Hooper and Mr Justice Astill. It is likely to last two or three days; the judges are expected to reserve judgment and deliver a written ruling before Christmas. There will probably be further appeals.

The hearing which is not an appeal against Myra Hindley's life sentence. It is an application for judicial review - a claim that successive Home Secretaries have misused or exceeded their powers.

The question for the court is whether the Home Secretary has acted lawfully in deciding how much of her life sentence Myra Hindley should serve in prison. Whatever happens, she will remain convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Even if Hindley wins her case, she will not be released from prison; the Home Secretary could still decide she presents too much of a risk.

These are some of the arguments her lawyers will be putting:

  • A whole life tariff is unlawful because it wrongly restricts the discretion of a future Home Secretary.
  • The tariff is unlawful because the Home Secretary has no powers to impose an indefinite tariff.
  • It is against the law for the Home Secretary to increase a tariff once it has been set.
  • It is irrational of the Home Secretary to treat Myra Hindley in the same way as Ian Brady. Myra Hindley does not deserve a whole life tariff.
  • A whole life tariff stops the Home Secretary taking into account the exceptional progress Myra Hindley has made in prison.
  • Myra Hindley was told in March 1997 that the Parole Board thought she should be transferred to an open prison; by then, Michael Howard had set a whole life tariff; she should have been told about the Parole Board recommendations while she had a chance to influence the Home Secretary's decision.

All these points have been rejected by the Home Secretary. This is how his lawyers will be responding to Myra Hindley's claims:

  • A whole life tariff can be reduced in the future; it does not rule out all possibility of a prisoner's release.
  • The Home Secretary does have the discretion to set a whole life tariff; previous Lords Chief Justices have recommended them in murder cases.
  • Myra Hindley was not told about the 30 year tariff until 1994, and by then it had already been increased to a whole life tariff; in any case, the earlier tariff was provisional, and it was increased after new facts became known.
  • Although Brady had a more influential role, Hindley's offences were so grave that only a whole life tariff is appropriate.
  • The courts will not review the merits of the Home Secretary's decision unless it is legally perverse; in any case, the tariff is fully justified bearing in mind the fact that Myra Hindley committed her second murder nine months after the first, when she was already 23 years old.
  • Myra Hindley's lawyers have asked the Home Secretary to defer consideration of her progress in prison until after this case is over; he has agreed to do so and the court should not interfere.
  • The Parole Board's recommendation is not relevant to the length of Myra Hindley's tariff; in any case, the Home Secretary is always ready to consider fresh representations about it.

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