Hutchinson v. United Kingdom
European Court of Human Rights (“ECtHR”)
3 February 2015
Article 3 of the Convention for Protection of Human Rights & Fundamental Freedoms (“ECHR”) (“No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”)
Section 30 of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 (Secretary of State may release a life prisoner at any time if exceptional circumstances exist which justify the release on compassionate grounds)
Chapter 12 of Indeterminate Sentence Manual (sets out criteria for exercising Secretary of State’s discretion) (“Lifer Manual”)
Section 6 of Human Rights Act of 1998 (Secretary of State must act compatibly with Article 3 of the Convention)
The appellant, an adult at the time of the offence, was convicted of rape and murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1984. In 1994 the Secretary of State decided to impose a whole life term. The appellant had requested review by UK courts of the Secretary of State’s decision in 2008, but the courts upheld the Secretary of State’s determination.
Issue and resolution:
Life imprisonment; whole life orders. The ECtHR found that whole life orders and the Secretary of State’s power of review under section 30 of the Crime (Sentences) Act complied with the requirements of Article 3 of the ECHR.
The ECtHR focused on two prior cases (Vinter v. UK and R v. McLoughlin) addressing this issue. In Vinter, the ECtHR had determined that the UK’s law with respect to life imprisonment violated Article 3 of the ECHR due to a lack of clarity about how a life sentence might be reduced. In McLoughlin, a UK court ruled that domestic law must be interpreted in a manner that is consistent with Article 3. As a result, the Secretary of State’s consideration of whether any “exceptional circumstances” justify an early release must align with Article 3. By harmonising UK law with Article 3, the UK provision that a life imprisonment term contains a possibility of release based upon the Secretary of State’s review for exceptional circumstances does not violate Article 3.
The appellant had argued that review of life terms should be conducted by a judicial (or quasi-judicial) panel, rather than by the Secretary of State. Otherwise, he contended, the law lacks the “clarity” required by the ECtHR in Vinter. The UK argued that, in light of McLoughlin, the Secretary of State is obliged to review life terms in a manner that is consistent with Article 3, which necessarily satisfies the article.
The ECtHR noted that countries must remain free to impose life sentences on adult offenders for especially serious crimes, and that the imposition of such a sentence on an adult offender is not in itself prohibited by or incompatible with Article 3. An Article 3 problem would only arise if the life sentence is as a matter of law or practice irreducible.
ECtHR precedent requires that prisoners with life sentences are entitled to know at the outset of sentencing what they must do in order to have a possibility of release. The appellant argued that, because the Lifer Manual was not updated after the Vinter decision, the requirements for parole were not clear enough to satisfy Article 3. The Court disagreed, ruling that it was of no consequence that the Lifer Manual had not been revised, since it was clearly established in McLoughlin that the Secretary of State was bound to exercise his power under section 30 in a manner compatible with Article 3. The ECtHR noted that the UK is better suited to interpret its own legislation, and found that the UK court in McLoughlin addressed the doubts expressed by the ECtHR in Vinter, and that the ECtHR was bound to accept the national court’s interpretation of domestic law.
The Grand Chamber of the ECtHR delivered its decision on this case in 2017 agreeing that there had been no violation of article 3. Three judges dissented.
Link to Full Judgment:
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