Dissecting the latest bizarre decision of the ECHR
A man who shot five members of his own family and tried to frame his sister. A knife-wielding maniac who killed four men in as many months. A bodybuilder who strangled his wife and stabbed her so hard the knife snapped in two. These are just three of the 49 British prisoners currently serving “whole life tariffs” and who expected to die behind bars.
Until this week, that is. Now the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has ruled that, by saying that these vicious killers can never be released, the Government is breaching their human rights. The authors of the European Convention on Human Rights must be turning in their graves.
Signed in 1950, the Convention was designed to avoid a repeat of the unspeakable horrors of the Second World War. It was the founding document of an alliance against genocide, murder and tyranny. Now, over 60 years later, the Strasbourg Court is using the Convention to give hope to some of Britain’s most dangerous criminals.
Judges do not take lightly the decision to send people to prison at all, let alone for life. The whole life tariff is reserved for serial killers, child abductors and sadistic sexual predators. Its recipients include Ian Brady and Peter Sutcliffe. This year, those two have been joined by Mark Bridger, who kidnapped and killed five year old April Jones, and Dale Cregan, the grenade-toting maniac who killed two policewomen in Manchester last year.
Yet these are the people that judges in Strasbourg want to be given a second chance. They have ruled that Britain’s whole life sentences are unlawful, and that even the Yorkshire Ripper should be able to hold out some hope of being released. I suspect the people of Bingley might have a different view about the prospect of bumping into Peter Sutcliffe down the shops.
So how have we reached this ridiculous situation?
The Strasbourg Court was set up to prevent serious breaches of human rights, like torture or imprisonment without trial. Its job was simple; to interpret the European Convention on Human Rights in the way intended by its signatories – nothing more, nothing less. However, in recent years the Court’s judges have meddled more and more in the business of national parliaments.
As a result, European judges have in effect re-written our very laws, trampling all over public opinion in the process. They have allowed foreign killers to stay in Britain to “protect their family life”, told parents how to discipline their children, and said prisoners should have the right to vote. In the weird world of Strasbourg, the rights of murderers are debated and extended, whilst the rights of the honest majority are ignored.
Perhaps this should come as no surprise, given the standard of judges in Strasbourg. Some do not understand either of the main languages of the Court (English and French) and many have little or no judicial experience, being appointed largely because they have the right contacts in their home countries. One judge was overheard asking another what a “precedent” meant in law.
Even if we leave all that aside, why should a judge from Armenia or Azerbaijan be able to tell Britain how to treat its prison population? In theory the Strasbourg Court should give national governments a “margin of appreciation” – a kind of legal leeway that accepts the Convention can be interpreted in different ways by different member states according to their own traditions. Yet, as the Court expands its influence, this margin seems to be shrinking with every passing year.
Despite this, there are some – usually a mixture of smug academics and lawyers who make their money in Strasbourg – who say Britain has accepted the jurisdiction of the European Court and must bow to its decisions. That is simply not the case. Britain cannot be forced to review the sentences of those on whole life tariffs, and cannot be fined or made to pay compensation if those prisoners sue the government.
Could Britain be expelled from the Council of Europe, the body which oversees the Strasbourg Court? Not a chance. The Council has failed to kick out Moldova for torture, Bulgaria for police brutality and Russia for war crimes in Chechnya, so it is hardly likely to expel Britain for keeping serial killers locked up for life.
Strasbourg’s excessive interference with political questions must stop. The British people should not have their laws changed because judges in Strasbourg want to throw their weight around. The Court must remember that it is supposed to respect the democratic decisions of national parliaments and judgments of national courts, not overrule them from a distance. In this case it is Strasbourg, not Britain, which is breaching the rule of law.
By trying to overrule British law on whole life tariffs the unelected judges in Strasbourg have stepped way beyond the limits of their authority. A decision of this nature is a matter for the British Parliament alone.
The Prime Minister, Home Secretary and Justice Secretary all condemned the Strasbourg Court for its decision. But actions speak louder than words. The Government must now stand up for Britain, and stand up to Strasbourg.