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Volume 115: debated on Wednesday 29 April 1987

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asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he has now completed his consideration of the judgments of the High Court in the case of Brian Handscomb and the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Robert Weekes; and what changes in parole policy he now intends to implement.

The Divisional court judgment in the case of Handscomb and others, delivered on 2 March, upheld the lawfulness of the policy for the release of life sentence prisoners announced in reply to a question by the hon. Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates) on 30 November 1983. Indeed, it described that policy as unassailable. The judgment was, however, critical of certain aspects of the application of that policy in relation to the setting of the date of the first formal review by the Parole Board machinery of those cases in which a life sentence is imposed at the discretion of the trial judge, that is, for offences other than murder (for which the life sentence is mandatory). I am discussing with the Lord Chief Justice the arrangements necessary to take account of the judgment and I shall make a full statement shortly. The case of one of the applicants, Mr. Brian Handscomb, is now being reviewed by the Parole Board machinery in accordance with the relief offered to him by the Divisional court.Robert Malcolm Weekes was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1966, at the age of 17, having pleaded guilty to a number of offences, including armed robbery. This offence was committed in a pet shop, using a starting pistol loaded with blank cartridges. He stole the equivalent of 35p, which he dropped as he left. The trial judge said that he regarded Mr. Weekes as a very dangerous young man and explained that he regarded a wholly indeterminate sentence as appropriate so that the Secretary of State could release him when he had become responsible. The sentence was upheld by the Court of Appeal.Mr. Weekes was released from prison in March 1976 and recalled in June 1977, having behaved in such a way as to suggest that he represented a potential danger to others and to himself. He was released again in October 1982 and further detained in April 1985, because he had been out of touch with the probation officer supervising him under the terms of his life licence. He was released in September 1985.Mr. Weekes' application to the European Commission of Human Rights related to his recall to prison in 1977 and his continued detention. He alleged a breach of article 5, paragraph 1, of the European convention on human rights, which provides that no one shall be deprived of his liberty save in prescribed circumstances, such as lawful detention after conviction by a competent court, and in accordance with a procedure prescribed by law. He also alleged a breach of article 5, paragraph 4, which provides that everyone who is deprived of his liberty by arrest or detention shall be entitled to take proceedings by which the lawfulness of his detention shall be decided speedily by a court and his release ordered if the detention is not lawful. The Commission, having reported on the case in December 1984, referred it to the European Court of Human Rights. The court delivered judgment on 2 March and found that there had been no breach of article 5, paragraph 1, and that Mr. Weekes' detention had been lawful. However, the court found that there had been a breach of article 5, paragraph 4, in the circumstances of Mr. Weekes' case.The court's judgment accepts that, for the purposes of article 5, paragraphs I and 4 of the convention, where a life sentence is imposed because of the gravity of the offence, supervision of the lawfulness of detention, including any subsequent decision to recall the prisoner following release on licence, is incorporated at the outset in the original trial and appeal. On the other hand, it suggests that different considerations may apply where it is apparent that a life sentence has been passed, not so much as punishment, but primarily so that the indeterminate sentence enables the offender's progress to be monitored so that he can be released when it is safe to do so. This distinction is not recognised in our law, and the court itself observed that it may be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle elements underlying a particular sentence and to determine which of those elements was accorded more importance by the sentencing judge.However, the court found that

"the clearly stated purpose for which Mr Weekes' sentence was imposed, taken together with the particular facts pertaining to the offence for which he was convicted … places the sentence in a special category":

one in which the lawfulness both of the continuing detention and the recall of the prisoner following release on licence must be subject to review by a body with the powers of a court. The court found that the current review procedures of the Parole Board did not fulfil the necessary requirements of the convention in that respect.

I agree with the court's view that the circumstances of the offence of which Mr. Weekes was convicted make his a highly exceptional case. We have no domestic review procedure which fulfils what the court decided were the requirements of article 5, paragraph 4, in his case. Moreover, I am satisfied that there is no evidence that Mr. Weekes now represents a danger to the public such as was the concern of the trial judge over 20 years ago. In these quite exceptional circumstances I have decided that it would be right to recommend Her Majesty to remit the remainder of Mr. Weekes' life sentence. This will have the effect that he will no longer be liable to supervision or recall to custody.

We shall consider the implications of the relevant provisions of the convention for domestic law and practice in the light of this judgment, which does not, however, apply to life sentence prisoners in general. The "Special Category" into which the European Court concluded that the case of Mr. Weekes fell is in any view strictly limited.