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The BBC's Jon Silverman
"The tariff is decided by the Home Secretary"
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Tuesday, 20 February, 2001, 11:55 GMT
Minister's tariffs 'breach human rights'
The Human Rights Act of 1998
The Human Rights Act 1998 came into force last October
Two prisoners serving life sentences are challenging the home secretary's power to decide how long they stay in jail.

Lawyers for Anthony Anderson and John Taylor told Lord Justice Rose, sitting with two other High Court judges, that terms for killers serving mandatory life sentences should be set by judges, not politicians.

Jack Straw's powers to set tariffs for retribution and deterrence were branded "incompatible" with the 1998 Human Rights Act, which came into force last October.

"It is the inaccessibility and partial secrecy of the system we submit is one of its main vices," said Edward Fitzgerald, QC, who described the current system as "doomed".

If the pair win their case some notorious prisoners - such as Moors murderer Myra Hindley - might have a better chance of being released.

The challenge has also led to speculation that MPs may revolt against the new legislation if the two test cases are successful.

Landmark decision

Other cases raising the same issue have been put on hold pending the outcome of what will be a landmark decision affecting lifers up and down the country.

Anderson, now 38, was convicted at the Old Bailey in May 1998 of murdering Thomas Walker, aged 60, and Michael Tierney, a middle-aged homosexual, and given two life sentences.

Jack Straw
The home secretary rules on sentences for murder
The trial judge, with the agreement of the Lord Chief Justice, recommended a tariff of 15 years.

He said that in both cases Anderson "picked upon feeble victims" whom he "immobilised" with violence so they could not interfere as he stole from their homes before escaping.

In July 1997 the home secretary increased the minimum term Anderson must serve to 20 years.

Mr Straw said the higher tariff was justified because Anderson had killed on two separate occasions, though he has agreed to reconsider his decision.

'Brutal attack'

Taylor, now aged 50, and serving life at Whitemoor prison in Cambridgeshire, was convicted at Sheffield Crown Court in 1989 of the murder of Susan McNamara, a snooker club owner.

Both the trial judge and Lord Chief Justice set his tariff at 16 years, but in March the home secretary set his minimum term in prison before being considered for parole at 22 years.

Mr Straw gave as his reasons evidence of sexual interference with - or theft from - the victim, the absence of mitigating factors, the "brutal nature" of the attack, the absence of any particular motive and Taylor's previous convictions in 1983.

'Independent and impartial'

Mr Fitzgerald said in court: "We say he should not be free to fix a higher tariff than that recommended by the judiciary."

In both cases it was argued that Article 6 (1) of the European Convention on Human Rights required that the tariff should be fixed "by a judge who is independent and impartial - not by the executive".

Mr Fitzgerald said mandatory lifers should be subject to similar procedures as those which now apply to juveniles who were ordered to be detained indefinitely at Her Majesty's Pleasure, like the child killers of James Bulger.

In those cases the home secretary had adopted the principles of Article 6 (1) and bound himself not to exceed the tariffs recommended by the Lord Chief Justice.

Mr Fitzgerald also criticised the lack of openness in the current system.

Judicial tariffs could be criticised - but in contrast, no-one knew how the home secretary had approached his decision, he said.

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