Life sentences

Life sentences can be imposed on the following:

  • Any adult convicted of murder receives a mandatory life sentence.
  • Anyone convicted of murder when under the age of 18 receives a sentence of detention at Her Majesty's Pleasure (HMP).
  • People convicted of a second violent or sexual offence will normally receive a sentence of Indefinite Detention for Public Protection (IPP). This was introduced in April 2005 and replaced the automatic life sentence which could be imposed following a second serious conviction.
  • For a range of offences where the maximum penalty is life imprisonment, for example rape or grievous bodily harm, the court may impose a life sentence if it is considered that the person poses a danger to the public. This is referred to as a discretionary life sentence.
Tariff or Minimum Term

The trial judge will usually, when sentencing, fix the punishment period (the tariff) to be served before release can be considered. The length of this tariff may be appealed as with a determinate prison sentence. For prisoners convicted of murder, the CJA 2003 contains mandatory guidance to judges as to how long the tariff should be including, in some cases, whole life.

For cases other than murder, the sentencing judge should first decide how long the sentence would be if it was not a life sentence. This should then be halved to give a minimum term. The sentencing judge has the discretion to decide whether any or all of the period spent on remand should be allowed to count against that sentence.

Existing Mandatory Lifers

For those mandatory lifers who were sentenced prior to the CJA 2003, their tariff will usually have been set by the Home Secretary following recommendations made by the trial judge and the Lord Chief Justice. Providing the tariff period has not already expired, they are entitled to apply to the High Court to have the tariff re-set as a minimum term by a High Court judge. This will usually be done purely by a judge reading the papers which consist of materials both concerning the offence submitted by the Home Office and representations from the prisoner, although the court does have the power to convene an oral hearing if it considers it necessary. The minimum term cannot be increased over the level previously set.

Parole Reviews

Three years before the end of the minimum term, the Parole Board will review lifers’ cases to see if they are suitable to be moved to an open prison to prepare for release. Most lifers are expected to go to an open prison to prepare for eventual release. The review is conducted by the Parole Board reading the case papers and written representations but usually without a hearing. Although the Parole Board can recommend a move to an open prison, this is not binding on the Secretary of State who has the final decision. The exception to this process are those lifers with very short minimum terms (most often IPP prisoners) who may not have time for such a review and who can, in theory, be released from a closed prison.

At the end of the minimum term period there will be a parole review to determine suitability for release. This will usually take place as an oral hearing before a panel of the Parole Board who make the final decision on release. The panel will meet at the prison where the prisoner is held to consider the case and the prisoner is entitled to legal representation. Legal Aid is available to prepare and conduct the case. Prisoners subject to these reviews are entitled to see all reports that go before the panel except those that would adversely affect the health or welfare of the prisoner or others. In such a case the reports must still normally be shown to the legal representative.
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