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Tuesday, 28 May, 2002, 08:39 GMT 09:39 UK
UK overruled on jail terms
The Human Rights Act of 1998
Other cases will now make court challenges
The home secretary's power to overrule prison sentencing has been outlawed by the European Court of Human Rights.

The Strasbourg judges backed a claim by convicted murderer Dennis Stafford on Tuesday that a decision to keep him in jail longer than recommended by the Parole Board was illegal.

Mr Stafford, from County Durham, was awarded nearly 10,500 damages and 17,865 in legal costs and expenses.

The barrister who took the case to Strasbourg is Edward Fitzgerald QC, who also represents other life inmates including Myra Hindley who has been told she will never be freed.

Michael Caine in Get Carter
Michael Caine starred in the film based on Stafford's life

The unanimous ruling paves the way for convicted murderers such as Hindley to make their own legal challenges.

It will also force a review of the UK's Criminal Justice Act of 1991, under which the then home secretary Jack Straw decided to extend Mr Stafford's prison term.

Stafford's lawyers had argued that a judge, not a politician, should have the power to rule on when a prisoner should be freed after they have served their tariff or minimum term.

Hindley case

Under current terms, when a prisoner serving the mandatory life sentence has served their minimum term, or tariff, the Parole Board recommends whether or not they should be released.

Current home secretary David Blunkett said he was "disappointed" with the judgment.

He added: "Policy on the protection of the public and punishment of the guilty must always be the domain of the elected Parliament."

Independent Labour peer Lord Stoddart described the ruling as "outrageous".

He said: "I have always taken the view that in the last analysis it should be the people we elect who should have the say in these matters and not the European Court of Human Rights."

Myra Hindley in 1995
Hindley's lawyers will use the ruling to attempt to get her freed

Stafford, 69, was freed on licence in 1979, after serving 12 years of a life term for murder.

He and his friend Michael Luvaglio were jailed for life in 1967 for the Newcastle clubland killing that inspired a book and the film Get Carter, starring Michael Caine.

Luvaglio's solicitor, Sir David Napley, went to his grave convinced that the conviction was a gross miscarriage of justice.

In his memoirs he picked large holes in the prosecution's case and highlighted errors by the judges in the three subsequent appeals, all unsuccessful.

Refused

Stafford was detained again in 1989 for breach of conditions and released again in 1990.

In July 1994, he was convicted of cheque fraud and sentenced to six years imprisonment.

When the Parole Board said it was safe to release him again, Jack Straw, refused to do so.

But the European Court of Human Rights ruled the decision should have been made at a legal hearing, rather than by a politician.

Lawyers for Stafford brought the case under Article 5 and 1 - the right to liberty and security - of the Convention.

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 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Andy Tighe
"It directly affects only a small number of prisoners"
Norman Brennan, Victims of Crime Trust
"I do not think it should be given to judges"
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