European Court of Human Rights Invalidates Life Sentence without Parole

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) held this week that the UK’s whole life sentence violates Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights which prohibits “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

UK law provides a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment for murder, but the trial judge is required to set a minimum term of imprisonment, after which the prisoner may apply for release on license, or parole. However, a judge may impose a “whole life order,” instead of a minimum term, if the murder is exceptionally serious. Under such an order, the prisoner cannot be released except at the discretion of the UK Secretary of State if the prisoner is terminally ill or seriously incapacitated. The grand chamber held that for a life sentence to be compatible with article 3, “there must be both a prospect of release and a possibility of review.” This review should take place no later than twenty-five years after imposition of sentence and there should be periodic reviews thereafter.

The US Supreme Court has yet to go this far, of course. In Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct 2455 (2012), the Court held that a life sentence without parole is unconstitutional only if imposed on a juvenile.

Read the full opinion of the ECHR and the press release.