Triple murderer and rapist Arthur Hutchinson suffered no violation of article 3, Strasbourg rules

A man who broke into a house and murdered a couple and their son before raping their daughter suffered no violation of his article 3 right – prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment – judges in the European Court of Human Rights have ruled by 14 votes to 3.

The case concerned a complaint by Arthur Hutchinson, who is serving a whole life sentence for his crimes, that his sentence amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment as he had no hope of release.

The court reiterated that the European Convention on Human Rights did not prohibit the imposition of a life sentence on those convicted of especially serious crimes, such as murder. However, to be compatible with the Convention there had to be both a prospect of release for the prisoner and a possibility of review of their sentence.

The court considered that the UK courts had dispelled the lack of clarity in the domestic law on the review of life sentences. The discrepancy identified in a previous ECtHR judgment between the law and the published official UK policy had notably been resolved by the Court of Appeal in a ruling affirming the statutory duty of the Justice Secretary to exercise the power of release for life prisoners in such a way that it was compatible with the Convention.

In addition, the Court of Appeal had brought clarification as regards the scope and grounds of the review by the Secretary of State, the manner in which it should be conducted, as well as the duty of the Secretary of State to release a whole life prisoner where continued detention could no longer be justified.

The court highlighted the important role of the Human Rights Act 1998, pointing out that any criticism of the domestic system on the review of whole life sentences was countered by the HRA as it required that the power of release be exercised and that the relevant legislation be interpreted and applied in a Convention-compliant way.

The court therefore concluded that whole life sentences in the United Kingdom could now be regarded as compatible with Article 3 of the Convention.

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