Case of Vinter and others v. the United Kingdom (Applications nos. 66069/09, 130/10 and 3896/10)

6. In the penal context, there is no reason why this preventive aspect of Article 3 should not enter the picture when a convicted criminal is sentenced, depending on the nature of the sentence imposed. To take one illustration of this, if a sentence of imprisonment that is grossly disproportionate by reason of its length is imposed (it being common ground in the present case that such a sentence would violate Article 3 – see GCJ §§ 83 and 102), the person concerned should be immediately entitled to challenge the compatibility of the sentence with Article 3, without being obliged to wait until the proportionate part of the sentence has been served and the gross disproportionality begins to bite. The prohibition of gross disproportionality can be seen to be a preventive requirement of Article 3 that concerns the nature of the sentence the moment it is passed.

56. They also noted that, in Kafkaris, cited above, the Court had only said that the imposition of an irreducible life sentence may raise an issue under Article 3. All five Law Lords found that the imposition of a whole life sentence would not constitute inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of Article 3 per se, unless it were grossly or clearly disproportionate. Lord Brown in particular concluded that this Court would not regard even an irreducible sentence as violating Article 3 unless and until the time came when further imprisonment would no longer be justified on any ground – whether for reasons of punishment, deterrence or public protection.


60. Starting in 1976, the Committee of Ministers has adopted a series of resolutions and recommendations on long-term and life sentence prisoners. The first is Committee of Ministers Resolution 76(2) of 17 February 1976, which made a series of recommendations to member States. These included:

1. pursue a criminal policy under which long-term sentences are imposed only if they are necessary for the protection of society;

2. take the necessary legislative and administrative measures in order to promote appropriate treatment during the enforcement of [long-term] sentences;

9. ensure that the cases of all prisoners will be examined as early as possible to determine whether or not a conditional release can be granted;

10. grant the prisoner conditional release, subject to the statutory requirements relating to time served, as soon as a favourable prognosis can be formulated; considerations of general prevention alone should not justify refusal of conditional release;

11. adapt to life sentences the same principles as apply to long-term sentences;

12. ensure that a review, as referred to in [paragraph] 9, of the life sentence should take place, if not done before, after eight to fourteen years of detention and be repeated at regular intervals;”

112. Moreover, if such a prisoner is incarcerated without any prospect of release and without the possibility of having his life sentence reviewed, there is the risk that he can never atone for his offence: whatever the prisoner does in prison, however exceptional his progress towards rehabilitation, his punishment remains fixed and unreviewable. If anything, the punishment becomes greater with time: the longer the prisoner lives, the longer his sentence. Thus, even when a whole life sentence is condign punishment at the time of its imposition, with the passage of time it becomes – to paraphrase Lord Justice Laws in Wellington – a poor guarantee of just and proportionate punishment (see paragraph 54 above).

C. The Grand Chamber’s assessment

1. “Gross disproportionality”

102. The Chamber found that a grossly disproportionate sentence would violate Article 3 of the Convention.

  • Proportionality of sentencing

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