European Court of Human Rights Frees Murderers with Life Sentences

by Brian Risman, Publisher, www thelawjournal co uk - 28 May 2002

Today, May 28, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France overruled the power of the Home Secretary to keep life inmates in jail after they had served their minimum sentence. Today's court decision, which was an unanimous ruling, will force a review of the Criminal Justice Act of 1991. Under that Act, after the mandatory life prisoner serves their minimum tariff or sentence, the Parole Board must recommend whether or not that prisoner should be released. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the Home Secretary can overrule the Parole Board's recommendation. In Scotland, such overruling must come from the Minister of Justice.

The case that has caused this ruling is that of Dennis Stafford, who along with his friend Michael Luvaglio were jailed for life in 1967 for the Newcastle club-land killing that led to a book and the film "Get Carter", starring Michael Caine. Stafford was freed on licence in 1979, after serving 12 years of a life term for murder. Stafford was again detained 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 advised that it was safe to release him again, the Home Secretary at the time, Jack Straw, refused the release.

Lawyers for Mr. Stafford brought the case to the European Court of Human Rights under Articles 5 and 1 of the Convention, which covers the right to liberty and security respectively. The Court ruled that the decision should have been made at a legal hearing, rather than by a politician (that is, the Home Secretary).

In response, Home Secretary David Blunkett vowed to use all domestic legislation to "enshrine the power of Parliament to provide adequate punishment for the guilty - including life meaning life". The Home Secretary stated that his "overarching priority will remain protecting the public from dangerous offenders, while doing everything we can to assist and support victims and their families". Mr. Blunkett then stated that "it is crucial that jurisprudence does not interfere with this basic right on behalf of the elected government".

What can be said about this ruling? The position of the European Court of Human Rights, that such decisions should be made at a legal hearing, is reasonable jurisprudence. In that way, political considerations can be removed from evaluation of the particular case.

However, there is also the need for the government, the elected government as Mr. Blunkett has stated, to ensure public order and respect for the rule of law. Given the level of youth and street crime, plus gruesome murders such as that of Damilola Taylor, whose murderers walked free laughing, there is concern -- no, a public outcry -- for action to be taken by the authorities to ensure social order. How does this European Court decision aid in restoring public confidence? Obviously, it doesn't -- and it does worse -- it destroys in the public mind the view of the law as their protector, if it hasn't been destroyed already. Such decisions, which lack any basis in reality, feed extremist right-wing trends already sweeping Europe.

We hope that Mr. Blunkett and indeed the Prime Minister will act to negate the effect of this incredibly dangerous decision.

Brian Risman