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To see full judgement of the European Court on the case of Clift please click here

Clift v United Kingdom [2010] ECHR 1106 (13 July 2010)



At AMAL Solicitors we are proud to have highly experienced lawyers who have the expertise of dealing with cases at all levels including appeals to the High Court, Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court (formerly the House of Lords) as well as the European Courts.

AMAL Solicitors represented the Appellant in Clift v Secretary of State for the Home Department which commenced in the High Court in London. The case was dismissed and appealed to the Court of Appeal where a panel of three senior Judges decided against Mr Clift. We appealed the Court of Appeal's decision to the House of Lords on significant issues of law. The House of Lords dismissed the appeal in 2006. The matter was referred to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg where it continued to be contested by the United Kingdom Government on major issues of law, equality and justice.

After many years of lengthy and complicated litigation Mr Clift succeeded before the European Court of Human Rights which awarded him compensation and legal costs.

Mr. Clift was very pleased with the service and expertise of our lawyers and the issues of law decided in his favour benefitted many other individuals who found themselves in similar circumstances. Future cases raising similar issues will be interpreted broadly and by analogy with this case and past cases.


Full Details

Clift v. United Kingdom - Early release scheme discriminates against prisoner serving long, fixed term sentence


Background

Mr Clift complained that his continued imprisonment, following the recommendation of the Parole Board that he be released on licence, violated his rights under Article 5 in conjunction with Article 14 on account of the difference in treatment compared with prisoners serving fixed-term sentences of less than 15 years or life sentences.

Principal facts

The applicant, Sean Clift, is a British national who was born in 1966 and lives in Westcliff-on-Sea, England. His case concerns the difference in treatment as regards the early release of prisoners depending on the length of the sentence originally imposed.

Mr Clift was sentenced to 18 years' imprisonment in April 1994 for serious crimes including attempted murder. In March 2002, he became eligible for release on parole and the Parole Board recommended his release. Under the legislation applicable at the time, prisoners serving fixed-term sentences of imprisonment of 15 years or more were required to secure, in addition to a positive recommendation from the Parole Board, the approval of the Secretary of State for early release.

However, prisoners serving fixed term sentences of less than 15 years and those serving life sentences were entitled to early release upon the positive recommendation of the Parole Board only; no Secretary of State approval was required. The Secretary of State rejected the Parole Board's recommendation in Mr Clift's case, finding that to release him would pose an unacceptable risk to the public. Mr Clift was finally released on licence in March 2004, after the Secretary of State approved release following a further positive recommendation by the Parole Board at that time.

In the meantime, Mr Clift brought judicial review proceedings in respect of the Secretary of State's decision to refuse his early release in 2002. In June 2003, the divisional court dismissed the claim. Mr Clift's appeal was subsequently dismissed by the court of appeal and, in December 2006, by the House of Lords. Their Lordships did not find the difference in treatment to be the result of Mr Clift's "status", such as to fall within the prohibition on discrimination in the European Convention on Human Rights.


Decision of the European Court

Whether the applicant's status fell under the prohibition of discrimination

The Court underlined that the protection under Article 14 of the Convention was not limited to different treatment based on characteristics which were personal in the sense of being innate or inherent. Moreover, the term "other status" had been given a wide meaning in the Court's case-law.

The Court had held in another case that differences in treatment between prisoners in relation to parole did not confer to them "other status" where the different treatment was based on the gravity of the offence. However, Mr Clift did not allege a difference of treatment based on the gravity of the offence he had committed, but one based on his position as a prisoner serving a fixed-term sentence of more than 15 years. While sentence length bore some relationship to the perceived gravity of the offence, a number of other factors could also be relevant, including the sentencing judge's assessment of the risk posed by the applicant to the public. Where an early release scheme applied differently to prisoners depending on the length of their sentences, there was a risk that, unless objectively justified, it would run counter to the need to ensure protection of the individual from arbitrary detention under Article 5.

The Court concluded that Mr Clift did enjoy "other status" for the purposes of Article 14.

Whether the applicant was in an analogous position to other prisoners treated more favourably

In order for an issue to arise under Article 14 there had to be a difference in the treatment of people in analogous or relevantly similar – but not necessarily identical – situations. The Court noted that the failure to approve the early release of a prisoner was not intended to constitute further punishment but to reflect the assessment that the prisoner posed an unacceptable risk upon release. As regards the risk assessment of a prisoner eligible for early release, no distinction could be drawn between long-term prisoners serving less than 15 years, long-term prisoners serving fifteen years or more and life prisoners.

The methods of assessing risk were in principle the same for all categories of prisoners. The Court therefore concluded that Mr Clift could claim to be in an analogous position to long-term prisoners serving less than 15 years and life prisoners.

Whether the difference in treatment was objectively justified

The Court accepted that differences in treatment between groups of prisoners might be justified in principle if they pursued the legitimate aim of protecting the public, provided that it could be demonstrated that those to whom more stringent early release regimes applied posed a higher risk to the public upon release. The imposition of a fixed term sentence rather than a life sentence appeared to indicate that Mr Clift posed a lower and not a higher risk when released. It was therefore difficult to see any objective justification for a system in which prisoners serving fixed-term sentences of 15 years or more were subject to more stringent conditions for early release than life prisoners.

As regards the difference in treatment between those serving more and those serving less than 15 years, the Court accepted that such a distinction might not automatically be discriminatory. However, any distinction in treatment was only justified where it achieved the legitimate aim pursued. In Mr Clift's case, the United Kingdom Government had failed to demonstrate how the approval of the Secretary of State required for certain groups of prisoners addressed concerns for public security.

In those circumstances, the Court considered that the early release scheme to which Mr Clift had been subject lacked objective justification.

The Court therefore unanimously concluded that there had been a violation of Article 5 in conjunction with Article 14.

Mr Clift was awarded substantial damages and legal costs.

To see full judgement of the European Court on the case of Clift please click here