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Comparative Analysis of Sentencing the Most Serious Cases of Murder: Whole Life Terms


British Academy




Barry Mitchell, Professor of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice, Coventry University 
Julian V Roberts, Professor of Criminology, University of Oxford


The principal aims of this research are:

  • To examine ways in which whole life terms of imprisonment – which are imposed on offenders convicted of exceptionally serious murders - may be reviewed
  • To suggest how the law in England and Wales should be reformed so as to provide a review process in these cases.


A minority of murders are so exceptionally serious that the court believes the offender should never be released from prison. Such a sentence – a ‘whole life term’ - must be “reducible”, otherwise it will constitute inhuman and degrading treatment (contrary to Article 3 of the Convention on Human Rights). This does not mean the offender must be or can expect to be released. It means there must be an adequate process of reviewing the sentence. All offenders, even those convicted of the most serious murders, must have the opportunity to show they have been rehabilitated. However sure the court is that a whole life term is warranted at the time of passing sentence, there may come a time when a different view prevails.

In July 2013 the Grand Chamber of the European Court held that the one potentially relevant provision in current English law – which empowers the Secretary of State for Justice to release prisoners who are close to death – is inadequate, and reform is needed to comply with Article 3. In September 2014 the UK government stated that English law had been misunderstood and that no reform is necessary. But the government may be mistaken, and the Grand Chamber is yet to give its reply.

Our research will carefully examine how such cases are reviewed in a range of other jurisdictions, especially (but not exclusively) those based on the common law, and we will suggest how English law might best be reformed so as to comply with the Convention.

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