Hutchinson v The United Kingdom: ECHR 3 Feb 2015


Article 3
Degrading punishment
Inhuman punishment
Continued detention under whole life order following clarification of Secretary of State’s powers to order release: no violation
Facts – Following his conviction in September 1984 of aggravated burglary, rape and three counts of murder, the applicant was sentenced to life imprisonment with a recommended minimum tariff of 18 years. In December 1994 the Secretary of State informed him that he had decided to impose a whole life term. Following the entry into force of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, the applicant applied for a review of his minimum term of imprisonment. In May 2008 the High Court found that there was no reason for deviating from this decision given the seriousness of the offences. The applicant’s appeal was dismissed by the Court of Appeal in October 2008.
In his application to the European Court, the applicant alleged that the whole life order with no prospects of release had violated Article 3 of the Convention.
Law – Article 3: The case centred on whether the Secretary of State’s discretion to release a whole life prisoner under section 30 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 was sufficient to make the whole life sentence imposed on the applicant legally and effectively reducible. In Vinter and Others v. the United Kingdom, the Grand Chamber found that was a lack of clarity in the law as chapter 12 of the Indeterminate Sentence Manual (which provided that release would be ordered only if the prisoner were terminally ill or physically incapacitated) gave rise to uncertainty as to whether the section 30 power would be exercised in a manner compliant with Article 3. In addition, the fact that the Manual had not been amended meant that prisoners subject to whole life orders derived from it only a partial picture of the exceptional conditions capable of leading to the exercise of the Secretary of State’s power under section 30.
The Court of Appeal had, however, since delivered a judgment expressly responding to the concerns detailed in Vinter and Others. In R v. Newell; R v McLoughlin* the Court of Appeal held that it was of no consequence that the Manual had not been revised, since it was clearly established in domestic law that the Secretary of State was bound to exercise his power under section 30 in a manner compatible with Article 3. If an offender subject to a whole life order could establish that ‘exceptional circumstances’ had arisen subsequent to the imposition of the sentence, the Secretary of State had to consider whether such exceptional circumstances justified release on compassionate grounds. Regardless of the policy set out in the Manual, the Secretary of State had to consider all the relevant circumstances, in a manner compatible with Article 3. Any decision by the Secretary of State would have to be reasoned by reference to the circumstances of each case and would be subject to judicial review, which would serve to elucidate the meaning of the terms ‘exceptional circumstances’ and ‘compassionate grounds’, as was the usual process under the common law. In the judgment of the Court of Appeal, domestic law therefore did provide to an offender sentenced to a whole life order hope and the possibility of release in the event of exceptional circumstances which meant that the punishment was no longer justified.
Where, as here, the national court had specifically addressed doubts expressed by the Court regarding the clarity of domestic law and set out an unequivocal statement of the legal position, the Court had to accept the national court’s interpretation of domestic law.
Conclusion: no violation (six votes to one).

57592/08 – Legal Summary, [2015] ECHR 239
European Convention on Human Rights

Human Rights, Criminal Sentencing, News

Updated: 11 November 2021; Ref: scu.543764