Killers and rapists could be released earlier as High Court waters down parole terms
Killers and rapists serving long jail terms could be released earlier following a High Court ruling that their strict parole terms may breach their human rights.
By Martin Beckford, Home Affairs Editor
3:37PM BST 27 Jul 2012
Senior judges said it was wrong that criminals jailed for 15 years or more find it harder to be granted parole than more serious offenders serving life or indeterminate sentences.
Inmates given fixed-term sentences are only released early if the parole board believes they will not commit even minor offences.
But criminals such as murderers serving life or other indefinite jail terms can be freed if they merely no longer pose a risk to “life or limb”.
Mr Justice Treacy paved the way for far-reaching changes to the criminal justice system when he said that the differing treatment may amount to discrimination under Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
In a judgment handed down on Friday, he said: “When in each case what is under consideration at the early release stage relates to the risk of future offending, I can see no basis upon which the present situation – which exposes those subject to determinate sentences to a stiffer release test than those who must be taken to represent a greater risk to the safety of others – can be objectively justified.”
Lord Justice Thomas agreed, saying: “There can no longer be any objective justification for the different tests applied by the Parole Board to those serving indeterminate sentences and those serving determinate sentences of 15 years or more.”
During the case, the judge had acknowledged that it would have “huge consequences” for long-serving prisoners.
The challenge was brought by the killer of the brother of one of the victims of the notorious moors murderers.
Caz Telfer was jailed for 18 years in 2002 for the killing of Tommy West, whose sister Lesley Ann Downey was murdered by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley.
Telfer, now known as Caron Foley, was convicted of two counts of arson with intent to endanger life and two counts of manslaughter after setting fire to a house in Moss Side, Manchester, killing Mr West and his seven-year-old daughter.
She was eligible to apply for freedom after serving half of her sentence, but the Parole Board refused to recommend her release last year on the grounds that she has failed to come to terms with her behaviour.
Telfer will not be eligible for automatic release until she has served two-thirds of her sentence, in 2014, so her lawyers argued this put her in a worse position than life prisoners. They can be granted parole after serving half of their tariff as long as they no longer pose a serious threat.
The High Court dismissed her challenge, on the grounds that she would be deemed dangerous on any test, but she was granted permission to take her case to the Court of Appeal.
It is thought that the case may yet reach Britain’s most powerful judges in the Supreme Court, paving the way for a change in the law.
But some commentators suggested it would only affect a few serious sexual or violent offenders who had been jailed many years ago, as the rules have changed recently.
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “It is important that the fairness of Parole Board decisions can be tested in open court. This case has implications for a relatively small number of long determinate sentenced prisoners.”
A spokesman for the Parole Board said: “The legal tests for the release of long-term determinate sentence prisoners are imposed on the Parole Board in law through the Secretary of State’s directions. These Directions and therefore the release test are binding on the Board. It is for the Secretary of State to consider the implications of this judgment for his Directions.”
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform said: “Hyperactivity in criminal justice legislation over the past 20 years has resulted in a myriad of complex regulations when it comes to people’s release from prison. The constantly changing goalposts do not garner public faith in the criminal justice system.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “This judgment makes no change to the current position. The discrimination point the court was concerned about – on which permission to appeal was granted – will be addressed with the implementation later this year of new provisions as part of The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 which will align the release tests for determinate and indeterminate prisoners.
“This change in the legislation will not require more prisoners to be released.
“The Parole Board will continue to conduct careful risk assessments and consider whether it would be safe for a prisoner to be released. The Board will only be able to grant release where the prisoner’s detention is no longer necessary for the protection of the public – which will remain of primary importance in any release decision.”