Grand Chamber unanimously holds that murderer’s article 3 right was violated over release prospects

The European Court of Human Rights has held, unanimously, that there was a violation of article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment) of the European Convention on Human Rights in the case of convicted murderer, James Clifton Murray who complained he was serving a life sentence without any realistic prospect of release (the principal facts and earlier procedure are available here).

As regards the admissibility of the complaints, the court dismissed an objection by the Netherlands government to the effect that Mr Murray had lacked the status of being a victim of the alleged violation of the Convention, as he had eventually been granted a pardon and had been released from prison. The court underlined that the decision granting him a pardon had not comprised an acknowledgment of the alleged violation of article 3 and there was moreover no indication that the pardon had been granted as a means of offering redress.

Contrary to the Chamber judgment of 10 December 2013 – in which Mr Murray’s complaints under article 3 concerning his life sentence and concerning the conditions of his detention had been treated separately – the Grand Chamber of the court found it appropriate to assess those aspects jointly, noting that in this case they were closely interrelated.

The court considered that Mr Murray’s detention in a prison rather than in a custodial clinic could not have superseded the need for treatment that had been identified by the psychiatrist who had examined him in the context of the criminal proceedings. Furthermore, the simple fact that the punishment imposed on Mr Murray did not comprise a measure of treatment did not discharge the government from its obligation in this regard for the entire duration of his imprisonment. The court underlined that states were under an obligation to provide detainees suffering from health problems – including mental health problems – with appropriate medical care.

Mr Murray’s submission that he had never been provided with any treatment for his mental condition during the time he was imprisoned was supported by reports by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) on visits by that body to the prisons in Curaçao and Aruba, according to which mental health care in those two institutions was insufficient. Statements by a social worker and a psychologist of the prison in Aruba of 2014, according to which there was no mention in Mr Murray’s medical file of his having undergone any psychiatric or psychological treatment supported his submission as well.

The court observed that the principle of the rehabilitation of prisoners had, at least from 1999 onwards, been explicitly recognised in the applicable national law, which stipulated that a custodial sentence should also serve to prepare detainees for their return to society. While certain measures had been taken in Mr Murray’s case which might be considered conducive to that purpose, namely his transfer to Aruba in order for him to be closer to his family and the possibility to work and benefit from the structured life in prison – and he had significantly improved his behaviour during his detention – the risk of his reoffending had been deemed too high for him to be eligible for a pardon or conditional release. The opinions of the domestic court advising against his release showed that there was a close link between the persistence of that risk on the one hand and the lack of treatment on the other.

The court underlined that under its case-law states had a large room for manoeuvre (“margin of appreciation”) in determining what measures were required in order to give a life prisoner the possibility of rehabilitating himself or herself. However, although Mr Murray had been assessed, prior to being sentenced to life imprisonment, as requiring treatment, no further assessments had been carried out of the kind of treatment that might be required and could be made available.

Consequently, at the time he lodged his application with the court, any request by him for a pardon was in practice incapable of leading to his release. Therefore his life sentence had not de facto been reducible, as required by the court’s case-law under article 3. This conclusion was sufficient for the court to find, unanimously, that there had been a violation of article 3.

The court held, by a majority (twelve votes to five), that in the circumstances of the case, the finding of a violation of article 3 constituted sufficient just satisfaction; accordingly it made no award as regards any non-pecuniary damage. The court also held, unanimously, that the Netherlands were to pay Mr Murray’s son and his sister €27,500 in respect of costs and expenses.

Judge Silvis expressed a concurring opinion; Judge Pinto de Albuquerque expressed a partly concurring opinion; Judges Spielmann, Sajó, Karakaş and Pinto de Albuquerque expressed a joint partly dissenting opinion.

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