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The Whole Life Order: Its genesis; the challenges it both poses and faces; and its uncertain future

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy

The whole life order was introduced in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 as the most severe penalty available to the judiciary in England and Wales. It is imposed on very few offenders: only those convicted of crimes of ‘exceptionally high seriousness’. Uniquely, on the grounds of retribution and deterrence alone, those sentenced face life-long incarceration, with no review and therefore no possibility of release.

In the study, written sources, primary and secondary, are complemented by interviews with key elite respondents. The sentence’s genesis and the challenges it poses both to those serving it and to prison authorities are explored. The context, mainly the 1980s and 1990s, reflects a changing landscape in criminal justice: increasing stress on crime control, public safety, victims’ rights and on the interaction of the media, the public and politicians. The period also witnesses continuing judicial-executive tension and the growing reliance on the ECHR by defence counsel.

The study examines the many challenges to the whole life order’s legitimacy, culminating in the most serious: Vinter, Bamber and Moore at the ECtHR. The sentence’s survival is at risk and the issues involved in the potential broadening of the penological justifications to take into account proportionality, public safety or rehabilitation are considered. Any of which, it is argued, would require a review mechanism. The legal and political constraints the government would face in identifying any necessary replacement are examined.

Hope emerges as a significant issue, both in court appeals and to many respondents. Indeed, the whole life order is a sentence apart in removing not only liberty but also hope from those serving it. Despite the sentence being the country’s ‘ultimate’ legal punishment, there is surprisingly limited evidence of academic or political scrutiny of public understanding of its penological justification or of the practical and ethical issues surrounding it.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Award date2013


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