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Redefining the Meaning of Life: The Early Release of Life Prisoners

  • Stephanie Palmer (a1)


Although those sentenced to life imprisonment have no right to release, a life sentence rarely involves imprisonment for the remainder of a convicted offender's natural life. Life prisoners may hope for early release on the so-called “life-licence”, whereby they remain liable to be recalled to prison for the rest of their lives.



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1 In its evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on Murder and Imprisonment, the Home Office reported that Ministers had set a higher tariff in between thirty and sixty per cent, of the cases considered. Report of the Select Committee on Murder and Life Imprisonment, (H.L. 78–1) (1989) p. 43.

2 HC Deb. vol. 238, cols. 830–831w., (3 March 1994). A lower tariff period was set in three cases.

3 Home Office, Press Release, (22 July 1994).

4 Prison Statistics, England and Wales 1992, Cm. 2581 (1994) p. 125. However, this statistic is rising; see figures for 1975, and 1976 (ibid).

5 (18 July, 1994) (26/1993/421/500).

6 Even before 1965, there existed both a statutory system for release on licence and recall, and a developing notion that life sentence prisoners should be released on licence at some point. See Committee on the Penalty for Homicide (Prison Reform Trust, 1993).

7 See Windlesham, , “Life Sentences: The Paradox of Indeterminacy” [1989] Crim.L.R. 244, 249250.

8 See Committee on the Penalty for Homicide, p. 11.

9 Ibid. p. 12.

10 These policies were unsuccessfully challenged by judicial review in Re Findlay [1985] A.C. 318.

11 (1988)86Crim. App. R. 59.

12 HC Deb. vol. 120, cols. 347–349w. (23 July 1987).

13 R. v. Secretary of Stale for the Home Dept. ex p. Benson, [1988] The Times, 21 November.

14 [1992] Q.B. 740.

15 [1981] 1 W.L.R. 754. Payne was a mandatory life prisoner who unsuccessfully sought reasons for a refusal to release him on licence. See also R. v. Secretary of State for the Home Dept. ex p. Gunnell, [1984] The Times, 7 November.

16 (1991) 13 E.H.R.R. 666.

17 The court was also able to draw upon a host of other sources to support this policy shift. For example, the recommendations of the House of Lords Select Committee and the recommendations of the Carlisle Committee (1988), which examined the parole system, supported such a policy change. Unfavourable comparisons were also made with the procedures of Mental Health Review Tribunals. Legislative changes were also pending.

18 (1988) 10 E.H.R.R. 293.

19 See Committee on the Penally for Homicide, pp. 14–15.

20 HC Deb. vol. 193, cols. 311–312, (16 July 1991).

21 Op. cit., 16.

22 Criminal Justice Act 1991, s.34(4)(b).

23 The Lord Chief Justice has directed that save in exceptional circumstances the judge should make an order under s.34: Practice Direction (Crime: Life sentences) [1993] 1 W.L.R. 223.

24 See Secretary of State for the Home Department v. Walsh [1993] 5 Admin.L.R. 138 (Home Secretary was under an obligation to disclose a tariff of more than 20 years).

25 Criminal Justice Act 1991 s.35.

26 HC Deb. vol. 216, cols. 218–219w. (16 December 1992).

27 [1994] 1 A.C. 531.

28 At 557.

30 The court reversed Handscomb but as the Home Secretary had adopted a policy of accepting the judicial view of the tariff for discretionary lifers, there was probably a legitimate expectation that the policy would be continued. This policy is now enshrined in T h e Criminal Justice Act 1991, s.34.

31 At 559.

32 HC Deb. vol. 245, col. 652w. (30 June 1994).

33 HC Deb. vol. 229, cols 861–864w. (27 July 1993).

34 Home Office, Press Release, (22 July 1994).

35 See Richardson, G., Law, Process and Custody: Prisoner and Patients (1993) p. 177.

36 Committee on the Penalty for Homicide, p. 17.

37 Such prisoners may be able to rely on a legitimate expectation that their advised first review date will remain. But see Re Findlay, supra.

38 The court hadheld that there was no violation of article (5)4 where a convicted offender receives a sentence of imprisonment based solely on the gravity of the offence and the need for retribution and deterrence: these are not factors which change over time.

39 Earl Ferrers, HL Deb., vol. 555, col. 573, (24 May 1994).

40 The Times, 27 June 1994.

41 See Windlesham, , “Life Sentences: law, practice and release decisions, 1989–93” [1993] Crim.L.R. 644, 658 and generally, G. Richardson, supra.

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Redefining the Meaning of Life: The Early Release of Life Prisoners

  • Stephanie Palmer (a1)


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