Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Law report - tariffs for life sentences

I was asked by the Royal Gazette to give an overview of today's Privy Council judgment concerning parole for life sentences. Below is what I passed on to the newspaper:

Parliament passed a law on tariffs for life sentences, which said that a murderer shall not be eligible for release until they have served at least 15 years in prison, and a premeditated murderer shall not be eligible for release until they have served 25 years.

The Bermuda Court of Appeal had said these tariffs were void because tariffs are a matter for the trial judge under the Bermuda Constitution. As they were void, the trial judge could decide on a higher or lower tariff, depending on the circumstances of the case.

However, the Privy Council reached the conclusion that the 15/25 year limits were in fact setting maximum periods – i.e. that parliament meant eligibility for parole could be set for any period up until 15/25 years.

This means that prisoners currently serving life sentences with longer tariffs will be able to get their tariffs capped at 15 or 25 years. It is stressed that this does not mean murderers will automatically go free after 15 or 25 years – it is still a matter for the parole board as to whether they should be released.

It is also stressed that Parliament could get around the Privy Council judgment by simply removing the maximum periods retrospectively. Although the Bermuda Constitution prevents penalties being increased retrospectively, there are good legal precedents that the period for parole eligibility is not a penalty for that purpose.

If that is right, then the Privy Council judgment might turn out to be a storm in a teacup.

For reference, the most relevant parts of the judgment are paras 4-5 and 14-16.

For further reference, the cases on parole eligibility are Hogben v the United Kingdom (European Court of Human Rights) and R v R [2003] 4 All ER 882 (English Court of Appeal). There are probably others too.

It'll be very interesting to see how Parliament implements damage control so as to ensure judges are able to set longer tariffs.