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Monday, 15 March, 1999, 19:39 GMT
James Bulger: The court's decision

From: Joshua Rozenberg, BBC Legal Affairs Correspondent

Subject: The referral to the European Court of Human Rights of the trial against the two boys who killed toddler James Bulger.


Is this about sentencing or the nature of the trial itself?

Both. The Human Rights Commission thought that the boys had been deprived of their right to a fair trial before an impartial tribunal. It said their trial was unfair because they were too young to participate in the proceedings. And the length of their detention was decided by a politician, former home secretary Michael Howard, who could not be considered impartial.

Can this mean the boys will be released?

If the European Court eventually decides that the boys' minimum period of punishment should be fixed by a court, they might receive a shorter tariff than the 15 years set originally by Michael Howard.

How long will this process take?

It will be at least a year before the court delivers its ruling, and perhaps longer.

Are there recent examples of the European Court of Human Rights intervening after a UK trial?

The court often considers cases from the United Kingdom. We used to be one of its best customers.

How unusual was it to try 10-year-olds in this way and were any special measures taken to help them?

Fortunately, it is very unusual for children to be charged with murder. Though they were tried in an adult court, they had social workers sitting with them in the dock and the court sat shorter hours than normal.

What exact powers does the European Court of Human Rights have?

The court decides whether the European Convention on Human Rights has been breached by countries which are members of the Council of Europe. It can award compensation. Governments undertake to change their laws if the court finds they have not complied with the convention.

Where have the boys been kept and when could they be released in the normal course of events?

They have been living in local authority secure accommodation. We do not know where exactly they are. Under present arrangements, they would not be released until they have served whatever period of punishment was set by the home secretary of the day.

Does this episode mean further intervention from Europe in the UK legal system?

It was the choice of successive British governments to support the European Convention on Human Rights.

What could be the implications of the forthcoming hearing for the trying of juveniles in the UK in future?

If the court decides that our laws fail to meet the standards laid down in the European Convention on Human Rights, we shall have to change them.

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