Wednesday, July 10, 2013

ECHR’s Grand Chamber says whole term Life Sentences without review are inhuman and degrading treatment, Article three violation of human rights should never have happened in the UK, we don’t weaken society by giving people their rights, quite the opposite in fact

Dear All

One of the partnerships that haven’t really worked well is that of politics and law, skewered by parties for their political advantage..

Human rights are important, but they are under attack from politicians who should know better.

Recently I did an article on the Think Scotland website on prisoner voting rights, my position is that prisoners should be allowed to vote, I also think there should be a criteria of eligibility which should be worked out.

Although many people attack the European Union for different reasons, we should be grateful we are members; I have always been a fan of Europe even when the EU institutions haven’t worked as effectively as they could have.  

The European Convention on Human Rights is an important work, the Strasbourg court has delivered some fine legal judgments which we in Britain should have arrived at by ourselves.

But didn’t!

We all recognise that everyone has the right to a fair trial, the Article Six rights are the corner stone of a fair and just society, and rightly we have an independent judiciary. People recognise this as important and it is, without an independent judiciary, we would live in a Police State where politicians would decide ‘justice’.

In Britain, some people convicted of horrendous crimes get whole-life jail sentences without any prospect of release.

Certain criminal cases become so high profile that there is trial by media with politicians jumping on the bandwagon, ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’. Emotion shouldn’t play any part in the application of law.

I dislike trial by media and especially when politicians use a particular case for their own political advantage, it is plainly wrong, and something we should all guard against.

The European court of Human Rights has ruled that whole-life jail sentences without any prospect of release amount to inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners.

Is this correct legal judgment?

The answer is Yes!

People should have the right to have their cases reviewed by an independent body, this does not mean they should be released, however, in a fair and democratic society; we should operate on the basis of laws.

The landmark judgment will set the ECHR on a fresh collision course with the UK government who should be able to come to this decision by logical means.  It is because of rather out-dated notions on crime and chance of re-election that has stopped progress on many issues to do with prison reform.

In law, you aren’t asked to like judgment or allow your own prejudice to be a barrier to curtail the rights of others.

Although the ruling is correct it does not mean that any of the applicants the convicted murderers Jeremy Bamber, Peter Moore and Douglas Vinter are likely to be released soon.

In its decision, the Strasbourg court said there had been a violation of article 3 of the European convention on human rights, which prohibits inhuman and degrading treatment.

Human rights at their core are all about commons sense and decency, however, since the European Convention on Human Rights documents was written, I believe that like all legislation there is scope for review and upgrade.

Although times change, common sense and decency do not.

The judgment said:

"For a life sentence to remain compatible with article 3 there had to be both a possibility of release and a possibility of review."

The court emphasised and it is worth reinforcing this legal point, that "the finding of a violation in the applicants' cases should not be understood as giving them any prospect of imminent release. Whether or not they should be released would depend, for example, on whether there were still legitimate penological grounds for their continued detention and whether they should continue to be detained on grounds of dangerousness. These questions were not in issue."

Was this a case that was straight forward?

Again, I would say yes.

The judges in the grand chamber at Strasbourg, the appeal court above the ECHR, found by a majority of 16 to one that there had been a violation of human rights.

16 to one!

Giving people human rights doesn’t weaken society, allowing politicians to abuse the law does, their argument is based in part of their personal beliefs which they invite you to accept and surrender your own judgment.

I am not saying that everything in human rights is perfect; law is always open to how people view a particular piece of legislation.
The ruling comes after the Home Secretary, Theresa May, voiced her frustrations with the European courts in the Commons in the wake of the lengthy fight to deport the radical cleric Abu Qatada from the UK.

The problem in the Abu Qatada case was that Jordan in the past has used torture, and Britain hasn’t signed up to that, which is why it has taken so long.

Through-out the world, it would be better if there was a global understanding of human rights which everyone could sign up to. Perhaps the United Nations could lead the way and work with governments in a new age of enlightenment.

In its judgment, the grand chamber said:

"The need for independent judges to determine whether a whole-life order may be imposed is quite separate from the need for such whole-life orders to be reviewed at a later stage so as to ensure that they remain justified on legitimate penological grounds."

It added:

"Given that the stated intention of the [2003 Criminal Justice Act] was to remove the executive entirely from the decision-making process concerning life sentences, it would have been more consistent to provide that, henceforth, the 25-year review [of whole-life sentences], instead of being eliminated completely, would be conducted within a wholly judicial framework rather than, as before, by the executive subject to judicial control."

The European Court fixed a problem which manifested itself in the 2003 Criminal Justice Act under the then Labour Government.

The new British judge on the court, Paul Mahoney, pointed out in his comments that the UK government was "of course free to choose the means whereby they will fulfil their international treaty obligation" to abide by the judgment.

Hopefully rather than drag their heels I would hope that the coalition will act, however, I don’t think this close to the General election we will see any action.

Commenting on the decision, Rebecca Niblock, a criminal law solicitor at Kingsley Napley LLP, said:

"No doubt there will be renewed calls to pull out of the European convention on human rights and repeal the Human Rights Act. Yet Theresa May would do well to keep a sense of proportion: a right to have the sentence reviewed is quite different from a right to be released, and the number of prisoners affected is tiny – 49."

She added:

"England and Wales lag behind other European countries in the use of the whole-life sentence – the only other EU country which uses it is Holland. The repeated calls to withdraw from the European convention carry a huge risk of undermining the UK's reputation abroad. There is only so much the UK can say to other countries about their human rights records when they show disdain for judgments which go against them at Strasbourg”.

And she agrees with my point that:

"Making political capital at the expense of the rule of law is a dangerous game."

Yours sincerely

George Laird
The Campaign for Human Rights at Glasgow University 

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