ECtHR whole-life tariffs judgment – Vinter and Others v UK

17 January 2012

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has today handed down its judgment in the case of Vinter and Others v United Kingdom [2012] ECHR 023. The cases concerned the applicants’™ complaint that their imprisonment for life amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment as they had no hope of release.

The Applicants are three life sentence prisoners with “whole life” tariffs, which means they will never be considered for release other than on compassionate grounds, with a test which is almost never reached. They argued that such a sentence without review was inhuman and degrading and thereby a violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The sentence not only resulted in lifelong imprisonment but the denial of any hope.

The ECtHR recognised that such sentences were not available anywhere else in Europe, except in a very small number of cases in the Netherlands, and were contrary to the trend in penal culture and various international instruments. Nevertheless, whole life prison sentences were not of themselves inhuman or degrading and it was not argued in any of the cases that the point had been reached when the detention had become such as a matter of fact.

It held by a bare 4-3 majority that there had been no violation, the minority agreeing with the Applicants that the lack of a review mechanism violated Article 3, from the outset of the sentence. The Applicants will now ask for a referral to the Grand Chamber for a review of the judgment.

Pete Weatherby of Garden Court North Chambers was counsel for Mr Vinter, instructed by Simon Creighton of Bhatt Murphy solicitors.

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