The appointment of the Life Sentence Review Commissioners (LSRC) was the result of a review of Northern Ireland Prisons legislation conducted by the Government in anticipation of the coming into effect, in October 2000, of the provisions of the Human Rights Act 1998. An important aspect of that work was to review the arrangements then in place for the consideration of the suitability for release of prisoners who had been sentenced to life imprisonment. The review considered the three types of life sentence: mandatory life sentences (for murder), discretionary life sentences (for other serious violent offences) and juvenile offenders sentenced to detention at the Secretary of State’s pleasure in circumstances that would, for an adult, have merited either a mandatory or a discretionary life sentence.
The review concluded that the existing procedures for discretionary life sentence prisoners and those sentenced to detention at the Secretary of State’s pleasure could be deemed inconsistent with the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The procedures were based on advice on the suitability of the prisoner for release being given to the Secretary of State by the Life Sentence Review Board, a non-statutory body consisting largely of senior officials of the Northern Ireland Office (NIO). It was considered that compliance with the ECHR would require that, once the punitive element of the sentence had been completed, each prisoner should have his or her case reviewed periodically by a judicial body. To have judicial character, the body would need to be independent of the Executive (and of the parties concerned); impartial; and able to give a legally binding direction regarding the prisoner’s release.
In March 2000, the report on the Review of the Criminal Justice System in Northern Ireland endorsed this conclusion and further recommended that an independent body should make decisions on the release of all life sentenced prisoners.
The Government accepted this recommendation and brought forward legislation that required all life sentenced prisoners to have the punitive element of their sentence judicially determined and their suitability for release independently assessed and directed at the appropriate time by an independent body of judicial character.
The legislation governing the LSRC was contained within the Life Sentences (Northern Ireland) Order 2001 and the Life Sentence Review Commissioners’ Rules 2001. The Order was approved and the Rules laid before Parliament in July 2001 and both came into force on 8 October 2001.