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R v. Lichniak; R v. Pyrah

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Court/Judicial body: House of Lords

Citation: [2002] UKHL 47
Date: 25 November 2002
Instrument(s) cited: European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”): Article 3 (Prohibition of Torture), Article 5(1) (Right to Liberty and Security)

Case summary

Background: Two adults, Lichniak and Pyrah, brought this appeal against their life sentences.  Section 1(1) of the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965 imposes a mandatory life sentence on adults who have been convicted of murder. In England, a sentence of life imprisonment has two elements: a tariff term set for a particular number of years (which is intended to punish the person who has been convicted), and the power of the Parole Board to continue to detain the convicted person beyond the end of the tariff term (which is intended to protect the public, if the convicted person is considered to present a continuing risk to the public).  Convicted murderers serving the tariff part of their mandatory life sentence cannot know whether they will be released at the end of the tariff or not, and so (unlike prisoners serving determinate sentences), will spend years uncertain about the date of their release.  The House of Lords considered whether this uncertainty was arbitrary and disproportionate, contrary to Articles 3 and 5(1) of the ECHR.  

Issue and resolution: Mandatory life sentences. The House of Lords dismissed the appeal, finding that a mandatory life sentence for those convicted of murder was not arbitrary or disproportionate, and therefore it was compatible with Articles 3 and 5(1) of the ECHR.

Court reasoning: In reaching their decision, the House of Lords referred to the case of V v. United Kingdom, in which the European Court of Human Rights considered indeterminate sentences given to children convicted of murder. The House of Lords reasoned that when a child, young person, or adult convicted of murder is sentenced to life imprisonment, or imprisonment during Her Majesty’s pleasure, the convicted person is not detained indefinitely.   Instead, he or she is detained for the tariff period which has been set, and will only continue to be detained after the end of the tariff period if it is necessary to do so in order to protect the public.  Although this did create some uncertainty for the convicted person, this uncertainty did not constitute inhuman punishment.

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