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Minimum terms

High Court setting of minimum terms for mandatory life sentences under the Criminal Justice Act 2003

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Neutral Citation Number:[2006] EWHC 2536 (QB)

Case No:2004/309/MTS


Royal Courts of Justice
Strand, London, WC2A 2LL

Date:19th October 2006


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 Joseph Ian Hellawell 

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I direct that no official shorthand note shall be taken of this Judgment and that copies of this version as handed down may be treated as authentic

Mr Justice Gibbs:
1. On 14th June 2002 having pleaded guilty to murder Joseph Ian Hellawell was sentenced by His Honour Judge Crowther QC to life imprisonment with a recommendation that he serve a minimum  term of 13 years to meet the requirements of retribution and general deterrence. Lord Woolf then Chief Justice recommended a minimum term of 11 years.
2. It now falls to me to set the minimum term pursuant to section 269 and Schedule 22 of the Criminal justice Act 2003, the matter having  been referred to me by the Home Secretary.
3. The deceased, Michael Skinner, lived in a hostel at Alveston, Gloucester. The deceased had been in a relationship with a female resident, who in December 2001 transferred her affections to another male resident. This caused friction between the three of them and caused tensions amongst other residents at the  hostel, including the defendant. On the evening of 5th March 2002 the defendant had become irritated by arguments between his three fellow residents. At about 11 pm he went armed with a kitchen knife to the deceased’s room. He told him to leave the other two alone, on the threat of using the knife against him. The defendant’s account was that he then “lost it” and stabbed the deceased. The deceased was denying that he was at fault and asking to be left alone. The deceased suffered two stab wounds to the chest, and in spite of being taken to hospital died of internal bleeding within an hour. After the offence, the defendant admitted the stabbing, but showed no remorse. He denied that he had intended to kill the deceased; he had wanted to warn him off, and had lost control. At the time, events in his personal life had led to a sense of hopelessness. The defendant pleaded guilty at the earliest reasonable opportunity.
4. In setting the appropriate term I must take into account the seriousness of the offence, and in so doing must consider the general principles in Schedule 21 of the 2003 Act; the recommendations made by the trial judge and the Lord Chief Justice; and the guidelines applicable at the time the offence was committed. I must ensure that the term set complies with Article 7 of the European Convention on Human Rights (Schedule 22/8(a)). I also have regard to the guidance provided by the Consolidated Criminal Practice Direction (29th July 2004) paragraph IV.49, “Life Sentences” (“the CCPD”). The CCPD among other things clarifies the correct approach to looking at the practice of the Home Secretary prior to December 2002 for the purposes of schedule 22 of the Act, in the light of the judgment in R v Sullivan, Gibbs, Elener and Elener (2004 EWCA Crim 1762, (2005) 1 Cr App R 3, 1 Cr App R (S) 67. I also have regard to the provisions of section 67 of the Criminal Justice Act 1967 relating to the time spent on remand in custody. I have read and considered a Victim Impact Staement.
5.  Schedule 21. Three possible starting points, dependent upon the seriousness of the offence, are provided by this schedule. The starting point applicable in the present case is 15 years (paragraph 6). In making his tariff recommendations, considering the aggravating and mitigating factors in relation to the offence, the sentencing judge identified aggravating features, including the fact that the defendant had armed himself with a knife; but also took into account the defendant’s plea of guilty at the earliest opportunity. In my view, the minimum term of 13 years recommended by the sentencing judge would be justified if based on a starting point of 15 years.
6. The Home Secretary’s practice before December 2002. However, pursuant to Schedule 22 paragraph 8 it is impermissible to set a minimum period which is greater than the Home Secretary would have been likely to notify under the practice followed by him before December 2002. Pursuant to the CCPD, the offence in this case having been committed on 5th March 2002, the best guide to his practice at the material time is the guidance provided to the judiciary by Lord Bingham CJ in a letter of 10th February 1997. Under that guidance, the starting point for a murder of “average” or “normal” seriousness was 14 years.  That starting point applies to the present offence. It is however to be noted that the sentencing judge appears, quite understandably, to have taken a starting point of 12 years, in that he had regard to the recently published Practice Statement of Lord Woolf; on that basis, he considered that a tariff of 13 years was justified, i.e. somewhat above the starting point. With respect to the experienced sentencing judge, my view is that a decision to fix the tariff period at a term longer than the starting point gives insufficient weight to the defendant’s early plea of guilty; on that issue, I am respectfully in agreement with the comment of Lord Woolf to the effect that he “would give (more) credit than the trial judge may have done for the plea”; alternatively the decision gives somewhat too great a weight to the aggravating factors. The only substantial aggravating factor which I can identify is the use of a knife in the context of an unpremeditated murder.  Accordingly, I think the tariff should be fixed somewhat below the appropriate starting point.
7.  In relation to my task in setting the minimum term, and in the light of paragraph IV.49.17 of the CCPD, the appropriate starting point is 14 years. I bear in mind that the setting of a tariff is not a mathematical exercise, that it involves a considerable degree of judicial discretion, and that there may well be many cases in which a decision under the guidance of 10th February 1997 may not differ from a decision made under the later Practice Statement. As it seems to me, the appropriate minimum period in this case is 12 years.
8. Under section 67 of the 1967 Act there falls to be deducted the time spent by the defendant in custody on remand, namely 3 months and 5 days. Accordingly the minimum period will be set at 11 years 8 months and 25 days.


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