Do Whole Life Criminal Sentences Contravene Human Rights?

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.



  1. “Aura of Legality”: “The terrible myth of organized society, that everything done through the established system is legal; and that word has a powerful psychological impact. It makes people believe that there is an order to life, and an order to a system, and that a person that goes through this order and is convicted has gotten all that is due him, and that therefore society can turn its conscience off and look to other things. … Because all tyrants learn that it is far better to do this thing through some semblance of legality than to do it without that pretense.”
    Words spoken by late radical lawyer William Kunstler, lawyer to Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Freedom Riders, Lenny Bruce, Attica State prison inmates … (those words are spoken on this 2 min. clip:

    His daughters made documentary of his life, called “Disturbing the Universe.”
    (perhaps just a small window that the full-length is (surprisingly) available. Uploaded recently. May be taken down.)

    Themes repeat throughout the decades. W.K. became radicalized when Bobby Seale, (Black Panther), was bound (chains?) and gagged within Chicago courtroom when he refused to obey judge’s orders. Kunstler himself rcvd. sentence of 40 months contempt charges. (not sure if he did the time.)

    John Lennon did a song re Attica Prison. I vaguely recall that his efforts in that regard were successful in gaining liberty for someone. (would take more than a song, in these times.)

  2. John O'Sullivan

    Thank you for your comment.