Home > Commentary, New Judgments and Cases to Watch > Challenge to the mandatory life sentence for murder

Challenge to the mandatory life sentence for murder

Two men convicted of murder are challenging the mandatory life sentence prescribed for murder and treason in section 2 of the Criminal Justice Act 1990, on the grounds that it contravenes Bunreacht na hÉireann and the European Convention on Human Rights.
In essence, the men are alleging that mandatory sentencing scheme in Ireland breaches the separation of powers and the doctrine of proportionality. Few people imprisoned for life in Ireland are likely to serve this full sentence – so, the Minister for Justice, following a report from the Parole Board, will direct release.

Their arguments were advanced previously in the High Court in Whelan and Lynch v Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform [2007] IEHC 374, where Irvine J rejected their challenge. There the plaintiffs argued that section 2 amounts to a sentencing exercise by the Oireachtas and thereby offends the doctrine of the separation of powers; that the absence of discretion of the trial judge offends the doctrine of proportionality; and that the direction by the Minister for Justice to release a prisoner serving a life sentence represents a judicial function, thus offending the separation of powers. Moreover, the men contended that they suffer inhuman and degrading treatment, contrary to Article 3 of the ECHR, due to the uncertainty of their imprisonment. They further alleged that Articles 5 and 6 are breached by the role of the Parole Board and the process whereby the Minister considers the continued detention, given that the former requires judicial determination of detention and review on a regular and frequent periodic basis and the latter protects a fair trial.

In rejecting all these contentions, the High Court relied on Deaton v. Attorney General [1963] I.R. 170 and Osmanovic v. DPP [2006] I.E.S.C. 50 to emphasise that mandatory sentences have never been viewed as unconstitutional. Indeed the High Court further stressed that judicial discretion in fact is impacted upon by laws which directs the court as to how certain evidence must be treated by at trial, and by requiring mandatory consequential orders to be imposed following upon conviction for road traffic offences, for example.

Regarding proportionality, the court differentiated the right to proportionality in sentencing (required where a trial judge is vested with a discretion as to the sentence that may be imposed) from the constitutional concept of proportionality which in this context is concerned with the public good to be achieved by the deprivation of liberty. The constitutional significance of the right to life, the harm wreaked by a killing on families (as protected by the Constitution) and the unique nature of the offence of murder were relied upon to conclude that s2 was not in breach of the doctrine of proportionality.

Furthermore, no breach of the separation of powers was found on the basis that the role of the court ceases once sentence has been passed and it is then up to the executive to carry out the sentence and, if appropriate, to exercise its rights of clemency. Indeed, in exercising his right to commute or remit punishment, the Minister was seen to be fulfilling the role afforded by Article 13.6 of the Constitution.

As regards the ECHR, the plaintiffs acknowledged that they are unlikely to serve out their life sentence and thus the High Court felt their sentences would not be such duration or unwarranted severity that would breach them within the scope of Art 3. Furthermore, the court did not see a distinction between the plaintiffs who could not anticipate their likely release date from other prisoners who are serving lengthy prison sentences. Moreover, the Court rejected arguments based on Articles 5 and 6 on the basis that the mandatory life sentence for murder is entirely punitive, and so their trial satisfied the requirements of Article 5(1) and they have no rights to a review by an independent body of their detention under Article 5(4) or Article 6(1). Similarly the intervention by the Parole Board and or the first named defendant in reviewing their continued detention was not viewed as a sentencing exercise.

Whether such a resounding rejection of their arguments is replicated in the Supreme Court remains to be seen.

  1. Liam Herrick
    February 16, 2010 at 12:56 pm | #1

    Great analysis Liz. The High Court judgment left a lot of unanswered questions and the case comes at an interesting time re. related discussions about mandatory sentencing.

  2. Gavinicus
    February 16, 2010 at 9:51 pm | #2

    Anyone interested should read the Irish Human Rights Commission document, by Paul McCutcheon and Gerard Coffey. “Determination of Life Sentences”. A very good analysis of the ECHR decisions. It firmly states that a decision by a minister, not being a court or court like body, offends the Convention. It would take me all day to go through the case law cited therein.

    http://www.ihrc.ie/documents/article.asp?NID=188&NCID=5&T=N&Print=

    Also interesting, for the nerds out there (NEVER!!) is that the SC in the case is Roger Sweetman, who is now a member of the Human Rights Commission!!

  3. February 22, 2010 at 10:58 am | #3

    Interesting commentary on decisions from Canada suggesting judicial discretion in sentencing even where there are mandatory minimum sentences in legislation: http://www.comparativeconstitutions.org/2010/02/prelude-to-end-of-mandatory-minimums-in.html

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