Judges can continue to impose whole-life prison sentences on those who commit the most heinous crimes, following a Court of Appeal decision this morning.

A panel of five judges – lord chief justice Sir John Thomas (pictured), Sir Brian Leveson, Lady Justice Hallett, Lord Justice Treacy and Mr Justice Burnett – gave the ruling in two murder cases that raised the issue.

In the case of Ian McLoughlin, the court increased a 40-year tariff for the murder of Graham Buck to a whole-life term, following a referral from the attorney general on the grounds that the original sentence was ‘unduly lenient’.

The judges also dismissed an appeal by convicted murderer Lee Newell that his whole-life sentence was ‘manifestly excessive’.

The judgments follow a ruling last year in Vinter v UK by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg that whole-life sentences with no system of review breached article 3 rights, prohibiting inhuman and degrading treatment.

The appeal judges, led by Thomas, held that courts are entitled to impose whole-life terms and that there is an adequate review mechanism where such sentences are imposed.

On behalf of the court, Thomas said that although there may be debate in a democratic society as to whether a judge should have the power to make a whole-life order, some crimes are so heinous that a ‘just punishment’ that is compatible with convention rights includes a whole-life order.

He said: ‘We do not read the judgment of the Grand Chamber in Vinter as in any way casting doubt on the fact that there are crimes that are so heinous that just punishment may require imprisonment for life.

In Vinter, he said, the Grand Chamber accepted that, because what constitutes a just and proportionate punishment is the subject of debate and disagreement, states have a margin of appreciation.  

‘Under our constitution it is for parliament to decide whether there are such crimes and to set the framework under which the judge decides in an individual case whether a whole-life order is the just punishment,’ said Thomas.

He concluded: ‘No specific passage in the judgment nor the judgment read as a whole in any way seeks to impugn the provisions of the [Criminal Justice Act] 2003 (as enacted by parliament) which entitle a judge to make at the time of sentence a whole-life order as a sentence reflecting just punishment.’ 

The Court of Appeal held that the Grand Chamber was wrong in ruling that the law of England and Wales did not clearly provide for conditions to enable such sentences to be reduced. The law of England and Wales clearly provided for such a regime through section 30 of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997.  

Thomas said the law of England and Wales does provide an offender ‘hope’ or the ‘possibility’ of release in exceptional circumstances.


Thomas added: ‘We find it difficult to specify in advance what such circumstances might be, given that the heinous nature of the original crime justly required punishment by imprisonment for life. But circumstances can and do change in exceptional cases.'

Reacting to the judgment, the attorney general, Dominic Grieve QC MP said: ‘I am pleased that the Court of Appeal has today confirmed that those who commit the most heinous crimes can be sent to prison for the rest of their lives.’

He said the judgment provides the clarity that judges need when they are considering sentencing cases like this. 

Justice secretary Chris Grayling said: 'This is a timely and welcome decision. Our courts should be able to send the most brutal murderers to jail for the rest of their lives. 

'I think people in Britain will be glad that our courts have disagreed with the European Court of Human Rights, and upheld the law that the UK parliament has passed.'

Jill Lorimer, criminal law solicitor at London firm Kingsley Napley said that the court had reconciled English law and the Strasbourg ruling by pointing out that there is no reason why section 30 could not be used more widely.

'While whole-life orders have been upheld, we can anticipate more applications being made for release under section 30 and for refusals of such applications to be subject to judicial review.'