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Monday, 21 October, 2002, 14:15 GMT 15:15 UK
Killer challenges 'whole life' tariff
Hundreds of prisoners have had sentences increased
A man serving a life sentence for murder is attempting to strip Home Secretary David Blunkett of the power to set minimum jail terms for killers.

Anthony Anderson claims his human rights have been breached by the increase of his minimum prison sentence to 20 years, after his trial judge had recommended 15.

And if he wins his House of Lords appeal, which began on Monday, it could open the floodgates for 23 murderers with "whole life" tariffs, including Moors Murderer Myra Hindley, to have new minimum terms decided by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf.

It would also allow 260 other inmates whose sentences were increased by the home secretary, to have their cases reviewed.

Public confidence

Edward Fiztgerald QC, acting for Anderson, told a specially-convened panel of seven law lords that politicians should not be allowed to decide sentences.

"It is a decision that should be taken openly, publicly and fairly in court by a judge, not secretly and unfairly by a politician who has never heard the case and is subject to all the inevitable pressures of public opinion."

Mr Fitzgerald also challenged the principle of a mandatory life sentence for murder, introduced with the abolition of the death penalty in 1969.

He argued the practice was unfair to offenders who presented no future danger to the public.

Prisoners given life sentence can be locked up for life, at the home secretary's discretion, or be recalled to prison.

'Life means life'

Up to 70 prisoners have already served more time than recommended by their trial judges and could bring cases arguing they should be freed.

Those who are successful may then sue for compensation.

Anderson's Lords hearing is expected to last three days, with the judgement to follow at a later date.

A Home Office spokeswoman has said, that if the case went against the home secretary, David Blunkett would bring in a new law to make sure "life means life".

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

"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."

Conservative Shadow Home Secretary Oliver Letwin said he would back Mr Blunkett in his attempt to retain power over life sentences.

'Political intervention'

Article five of the European Convention on Human Rights says everyone has the right to have their case heard by independent judicial tribunals.

Anderson's solicitor John Dickinson said: "Political intervention contravenes the requirement to a fair trial."

Members of the public see sentences handed out by the judiciary as very inadequate

Victims of Crime Trust director Norman Brennan

Successive judgements by the European Court of Human Rights have already ruled that judges, not politicians, should decide the lengths of sentences.

And 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.

Civil rights group Liberty's Roger Bingham said: "Ministers have too many influences on them. It is difficult for them to be scrupulously fair.

"They will always have one eye on how their decisions will be received in the focus groups and in the headlines."

Tabloid newspapers

Mr Bingham's view was supported by former Master of the Rolls Lord Donaldson, who told BBC Radio 4's Today programme politicians were susceptible to too many outside influences to make a fair judgement on sentencing.

He said: "It is quite wrong that sentences should be decided by the public writing in to the tabloid newspapers."

But Home Office Minister Lord Falconer defended the right of home secretaries to decide minimum terms for murder.

He told Today: "Everybody in relation to these decisions, the judges, the politicians, is susceptible to reading things in newspapers.

"But over the years a system has developed whereby there is a very strong judicial input but there is also somebody who is accountable to parliament."

Victims of Crime Trust director Norman Brennan said: "Members of the public see sentences handed out by the judiciary as very inadequate."

The BBC's Oruj Defoite
"There are 260 murderers in prison whose minimum sentences were raised"
Anthony Anderson's lawyer Michael Napier
"We're not talking about mass release of prisoners"
Shadow Home Secretary Oliver Letwin
"I think ministers are right to want to retain the ability to set minimum sentences for murder"
Ex prisoner, Satpal Ram
"Clearly his position amounted to political interference"
See also:

21 Oct 02 | UK
08 Jul 02 | Politics
04 Jul 02 | England
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