This year Stephen Harper’s government announced its intention to introduce legislation that will make a life sentence mean a sentence for life.
It remains to be seen how our courts will apply the Charter to the Conservatives’ tough on crime bill.
The boundaries of a similar discussion are being tested in Europe now.
On 1 June 2015 a panel of 5 judges of the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights referred to a full hearing before a panel of 17 judges, a complaint by UK prisoner Arthur Hutchinson who has been sentenced to spent the rest of his natural life behind bars. Here is a description of the panel’s decision – Grand Chamber Panels decisions June 2015
The issue will be whether a whole life sentence is compatible with section 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights which prohibits inhuman or degrading treatment. Hutchinson argues a whole life sentence amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment because he has no hope of release.
The panel’s decision to refer the case to a full hearing puts the European Court on a collision course with the UK courts. Last year the UK Court of Appeal ruled Hutchinson’s whole life tariff did not violate the Convention, because under UK law the secretary of state was bound to exercise his powers to release a prisoner on license in exceptional circumstances which constitute compassionate grounds.
The newly elected majority Conservative government of David Cameron in the UK has indicated it will not rule out leaving the European Convention if changes being proposed to UK human rights laws are rejected by Strasbourg.