The lawyers all seem to expect the Law Lords to decide this week that the Home Secretary’s power to extend the tariff set by the trial judge and the Lord Chief Justice in the case of anyone sentenced to a mandatory term of imprisonment for life (i.e. chiefly murderers) is contrary to the Human Rights Convention and Act.  Sadly, this comes just too late to benefit Myra Hindley (see the preambular postscript now added to my piece on that scandalous case).  But it will also be interesting to see whether their Lordships go on to pronounce illegal the continued detention of those several lifers already serving sentences beyond the tariffs recommended by the judges because a Home Secretary has extended it:  in which case a number of murderers will have to be promptly released;  or whether they will content themselves with pronouncing the relevant laws conferring this power on the Home Secretary to be incompatible with the Human Rights Act, and leave it to Parliament to do something about the conflict—in which case the lifers in question, although by implication illegally detained, may have quite a long wait before they can be released.  Either way, the Home Secretary’s setting of a 50-year tariff for a recently convicted child murderer just a few days before the Law Lords’ decision on his power to do so looks more like gesture politics to appease the Sun newspaper than a quasi-judicial act.  How shaming that a politician, subject to the pressures of the tabloids and party politics, should ever have been allowed to overrule the considered judgements of the trial judges and Lord Chief Justices, the former having heard all the evidence in the case and being better placed than anyone else to assess the scale of the retribution required by society and the probability of the relevant criminal being able to be released safely once the demands of retribution and deterrence have been satisfied!  Ministers and parliament have every right to lay down through legislation the broad scale of punishments appropriate to different kinds of crime, but there should plainly be no place in our system for politicians to be involved in deciding the length of any particular sentence (other than by advising the Crown on the exercise of the Royal Prerogative of pardon, often meaning in reality an admission that the person concerned was wrongly convicted in the first place).

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