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Tuesday, 28 May, 2002, 13:27 GMT 14:27 UK
Sentencing - no role for politicians?
Guard in prison
The Home Office plans "strong resistance"

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that judges, not politicians, should decide whether lifers should remain in prison after they have served their minimum tariff.

But what exactly does that mean for other notorious criminals such as Myra Hindley?

The tabloids might have you believe that the European Court of Human Rights' ruling is a murderers' charter; that prison gates across England and Wales will be opened to allow life sentence inmates a taste of freedom they thought they'd never experience.

But the court's judgement is far more subtle than that.

The court had to consider the case of a convicted murderer, Dennis Stafford from County Durham, who had served 12 years of his life term before he was released on licence.

Stafford was re-convicted of cheque fraud and sent back to jail.

In 1996, the Parole Board assessed his case and decided he was safe to be released.

Dennis Stafford
Dennis Stafford case has broad implications

But the then home secretary Jack Straw disagreed and refused to let him out.

Although Stafford was eventually freed in 1998, he went to Strasbourg claiming that his human rights, under Article Five, had been breached.

He argued that the decision to detain him in prison should have been taken by a legal body - a tribunal or court - and not by a politician.

The court agreed and awarded Stafford damages of 10,000 plus costs and legal fees.

The case has set a precedent - decisions to release life sentence prisoners after they have served their minimum term, or tariff, should not be taken by the home secretary.

In future, the decision will be taken at an oral hearing, convened by the Parole Board, and probably attended by a judge, probation worker and psychiatrist.

There will be no role for politicians.

On a practical level the change will make little immediate difference, because the Parole Board's recommendations for prisoner release are largely accepted by the home secretary.

Home secretary David Blunkett
Future life tariff decisions will be taken by the Parole Board

The Board considers about 500 cases every year - but only once in the last four years has the home secretary refused to free a lifer whom the Board has cleared for release.

However, the European Court's decision has thrown into question the home secretary's involvement in sentencing.

After a life sentence has been passed, the trial judge and the Lord Chief Justice recommend the tariff the prisoner should serve.

The final say rests with the home secretary.

In about ten cases every year the tariff is increased.

Resistance

Campaigners will now argue that if the home secretary is not allowed to say when a lifer is freed after serving their tariff, why should he be allowed to set the tariff in the first place?

Two cases testing the home secretary's powers are now likely to be heard in the domestic courts; they will be bolstered by the Strasbourg ruling.

Prisoners unhappy with the tariff fixed by the home secretary - like the child killer Myra Hindley whose original 30-year term was extended for the rest of her life - may also take legal action, knowing that the tide is in their favour.

Of course, they face strong resistance from the Home Office, which will not allow its powers to be swept aside, and does not want to be seen as being soft on criminals.

Overrule

The home secretary, David Blunkett, has said he will legislate if necessary to ensure there is no further erosion of his powers.

But the courts are slowly chipping away at those powers: Scotland and Northern Ireland have changed their laws to let judges decide how long life sentence inmates should serve and the home secretary has lost control over sentencing for juveniles detained indefinitely following the James Bulger case.

Now Strasbourg says he cannot overrule the Parole Board on adult lifers.

It may take several more years before it happens, but many experts view it as almost inevitable that eventually politicians will have no role to play in sentencing - it will be for judges to decide.

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The BBC's Andy Tighe
"This is only a small number of inmates"
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