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UK Government in breach of prisoners’ human rights in relation to indeterminate prison sentences

In an important recent judgment, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the UK violated the human rights of three prisoners sentenced to indefinite terms of imprisonment on the basis that reasonable provision for their rehabilitation had not been made.

27 September 2012

In an important recent judgment, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the UK violated the human rights of three prisoners sentenced to indefinite terms of imprisonment on the basis that reasonable provision for their rehabilitation had not been made.

The Criminal Justice Act 2003 introduced indeterminate imprisonment for the public protection (IPP) sentences.  Prisoners serving these sentences would remain in prison, following expiry of a minimum term (known as a tariff period) until a Parole Board judged that they were no longer a risk to the public.  These types of sentences were introduced on the premise that prisoners would have the opportunity to complete suitable rehabilitation courses while in prison that would allow them to demonstrate to the Parole Board that they were suitable for release.

Sadly, in reality, the resources were never then made available to allow these rehabilitation courses to be introduced in anything like the numbers necessary.  As a consequence many IPP prisoners remain in prison long after the expiry of their tariff on the basis that they are unable to access the rehabilitation courses necessary to demonstrate their suitability for release to the Parole Board.

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which came into force in May 2012, abolished IPP sentences.  However, this change did not apply retrospectively.  This means that there are currently over 6,000 prisoners in prison serving IPP sentences.  Of these, over 3,500 remain in prison despite the expiry of their tariffs.

In its judgement of 18th September 2012, the Court held unanimously that the failure to make appropriate provision for rehabilitation services for three IPP prisoners (Mr James, Mr Wells and Mr Lee), resulted in breaches of Article 5(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the individual from arbitrary detention.  As well as finding that their human rights had been breached, the Court awarded damages of 3,000 Euros, 6,200 Euros and 8,000 Euros to Mr James, Mr Wells and Mr Lee respectively, as well as their legal costs, in compensation.

The European Court of Human Right’s judgment contrasts with the approach of the Court of Appeal and House of Lords in the UK.  While both were highly critical of the Government’s failure to dedicate adequate resources to rehabilitation courses (the House of Lords called it deplorable), neither found that this made the continuing detention unlawful.

At the moment this judgment is not final.  The UK Government has already announced its intention to appeal this judgment to the Grand Chamber of the Court.  The Grand Chamber will then consider whether or not it wishes to consider the appeal.  If it does not, the judgment will be made final on the date it refuses to hear the appeal.  If it does wish to consider the appeal, then it will then deliver a final judgement on the matter.

Sean Humber, a partner in the Human Rights Department specialising in prison law matters commented:

“If the Grand Chamber refuses to hear the appeal or does but then delivers a final judgment in similar terms, then the consequences of the judgment are considerable.

“The Government will need to take urgent action to review the basis for the continued detention of all IPP prisoners, particularly those already detained beyond the expiry of their tariffs.

“It will also need to dedicate for greater resources at rehabilitation courses in prison.  This is now clearly a legal obligation rather than some high-minded aspiration.

“In addition, those IPP prisoners detained well beyond the expiry of their tariffs who have not had the opportunity to complete the necessary rehabilitation courses would seem, as a result of the judgment, to have good legal claims for compensation against the Government for false imprisonment and breach of their human rights.  The size of these claims is likely to depend on the period of detention.  Given the numbers involved, this could prove costly as well as politically embarrassing to the Government.”


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