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Ogarra Cohen Cramer

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When Life is Life

19th January 2021

When a life sentence is imposed, a tariff is attached to it. This tariff is the minimum amount of time that a person must spend in custody before being considered for parole and release. In certain circumstances, a whole life tariff (order) can be imposed, which means that the person will never be released.

Whole life terms are relatively rare, with around 100 being imposed since they were introduced in 1983. Prisoners serving whole life terms include Rose West and Jeremy Bamber, both convicted of murder rather than sexual offences.

The cases of two unconnected sex offenders were recently referred to the Court of Appeal on the basis that they were thought to be unduly lenient. McCann and Sinaga had been given a life sentence with minimum terms of thirty years. A further case, Shah, was also considered.

McCann was convicted of abducting seven females aged between 13 and 71; he also held a mother and her two children captive in their home. Seven of the victims, including two children, were seriously sexually assaulted during the course of violent attacks.

Sinaga was convicted of 136 offences of rape in respect of 44 victims. The scale of the offending, and the nature of the evidence, meant that the prosecution had to be split into four trials. Sinaga targeted intoxicated males in the early hours of the morning. He would escort them back to his flat using several pretexts and give them a date rape drug before raping or sexually assaulting them. He filmed and photographed the assaults with the footage showing that the victims were unconscious. In sentencing Sinaga, the judge commented that she was not aware of any whole life term being imposed for an offence other than murder.

Shah was a GP found to have carried out unnecessary breast, vaginal and rectal examinations of 24 female patients, two of whom were aged under 18 and two under 16. He was convicted of 90 sexual offences including assault by penetration and sexual assault and sentenced to imprisonment for life with a minimum term of 15 years.

In considering whether the sentences were unduly lenient, the Court of Appeal provided guidance on when whole life terms should be imposed.

A whole life order is the most severe sentence available, save in limited circumstances such as compassionate release; it removes any prospect of being released. A whole life order should only be attached to a discretionary life sentence in “wholly exceptional circumstances”. The sexual offending in all three cases was such that a life sentence was discretionary, unlike with murder where it is obligatory. However, “the door is not shut” to a whole life tariff in a case not involving murder.

There is an infinite variety of circumstances which give rise to serious offending, which makes it impossible to identify what may attract a whole life tariff. An indication, however, would be a murder planned to the point of execution but foiled or prevented by an intervening event. Another example given was a bomb being placed on a commercial airline that failed to detonate.

These cases were referred to as being very serious, but the Court concluded they did not call for a whole life tariff. This was to ensure the most severe sentence in the jurisdiction was reserved, save exceptionally, for the most serious cases involving loss of life or when a substantive plan to murder of similar seriousness was interrupted close to fulfilment.

The minimum terms for both Sinaga and McCann were, however, thought to be too low, and were substituted with terms of 40 years. The minimum tariff for Shah was left at 15 years.

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[Image credit: “The Royal Courts of Justice” by R/DV/RS is licensed under CC BY 2.0)