Case Murray v. the Netherlands

Importance Nature Application Number Case language State Date (dd/mm/yyyy)
4 Judgement 10511/10 langs.en,fr Netherlands 26/04/2016

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Murray v. the Netherlands - no. 10511/10

Article 3

Degrading punishment

Inhuman punishment

De facto irreducibility of life sentence imposed on prisoner suffering from mental illness: violation


The applicant was sentenced to life imprisonment in the Netherlands Antilles in 1980. At his trial, the applicant was diagnosed with various mental health problems. He complained under Article 3 of the imposition on him of a life sentence with no possibility of a review and of the lack of any treatment for his mental disorder. The Court considered that since the applicant’s repeated requests for a pardon were rejected i.a. because of the continued existence of a risk of recidivism, the different aspects of this complaint were interrelated and should therefore be examined jointly (§114). After the applicant passed away in 2014, the Court permitted his son and sister to pursue the application (§80).

The Court first recalled and largely developed the general principles applicable to life sentences and the objective of rehabilitation (§§99-112):

(a) Life sentences – The imposition of a sentence of life imprisonment on an adult offender is not incompatible with Article 3, provided it is not grossly disproportionate and, from the date of imposition of the sentence, there is both a prospect of release and possibility of review. In line with existing comparative and international standards, the review should be guaranteed no later than twenty-five years after the imposition of the life sentence, with further periodic reviews thereafter, and should allow the domestic authorities to consider whether, in the course of the sentence, any changes in the life prisoner and progress towards his or her rehabilitation are of such significance that continued detention is no longer justified on legitimate penological grounds. This assessment must be based on rules having a sufficient degree of clarity and certainty and be based on objective, pre-established criteria, surrounded by sufficient procedural guarantees.

(b) Rehabilitation and prospect of release for life prisoners – The review should permit the authorities to assess any changes in the life prisoner and any progress towards rehabilitation. In European and international law there is clear support, also endorsed by the Court, towards the principle that all prisoners, including those serving life sentences, be offered the possibility of rehabilitation and the prospect of release if rehabilitation is achieved. The State’s positive obligation is one of means and be achieved, for example, by setting up and periodically reviewing an individualised programme that encourages the prisoner to develop so as to be able to lead a responsible and crime-free life.

(c) Health care for prisoners with mental-health problems – A lack of appropriate medical care for persons in custody can engage the State’s responsibility under Article 3 of the Convention. Obligations under that provision may go so far as to impose an obligation on the State to transfer prisoners to special facilities where they can receive adequate treatment. In the case of mentally ill prisoners, the assessment of whether particular conditions of detention are incompatible with the standards of Article 3 has to take into consideration the prisoners’ vulnerability and, in some cases, their inability to complain coherently or at all about how they are being affected by any particular treatment. It is not enough for them to be examined and a diagnosis made; proper treatment for the problem diagnosed and suitable medical supervision should also be provided.

(d) Life prisoners with mental disabilities and/or mental-health problems – Life prisoners who have been held criminally responsible may nevertheless have certain mental-health problems which could impact on the risk of their reoffending. States are required to assess such prisoners’ needs for treatment with a view to facilitating their rehabilitation and reducing the risk of their reoffending and to enable them to receive suitable treatment – to the extent possible within the constraints of the prison context – especially where it constitutes a precondition for the life prisoner’s possible, future eligibility for release. However, States also have a duty to take measures to protect the public from violent crime and the Convention does not prohibit them from subjecting a person convicted of a serious crime to an indeterminate sentence allowing for the offender’s continued detention where necessary to protect the public.

As to the specific circumstances of the instant case, the Court first noted that the applicant’s contention that he was never provided with any treatment for his mental condition during the time he was imprisoned finds some support in various witness testimonies (§118) and  in “CPT reports on visits […] to the prisons in Curaçao and Aruba […], according to which mental health care in those two institution was insufficient” (§118). The Court therefore concluded that the applicant was not offered possibilities of rehabilitating himself during the period of his imprisonment. The Court further noted that “it transpires from the decisions of the [domestic courts] that there was a close link […] between the persistence of the risk of the applicant’s reoffending on the one hand and the lack of treatment on the other” (§122). In other words, whereas a psychiatric treatment constituted, in practice, a precondition for the applicant to have the possibility to progress towards rehabilitation, the applicant was not offered such a treatment.

The Court recalled that “States have a wide margin of appreciation in the determination of what facilities or measures are required in order to give a life prisoner the possibility of rehabilitating himself or herself to such an extent that he or she may one day become eligible for release” (§124). However the court observed that “although the applicant […] was […] prior to being sentenced to life imprisonment, assessed as requiring treatment, it does not appear that any further assessment were carried out – either when he started serving his sentence or thereafter – of the kind of treatment that might be required” (§124).

In view of the foregoing, the Court found that “the lack of any kind of treatment or even of any assessment of treatment needs and possibilities meant that, at the time the applicant lodged his application with the Court, any request by him for a pardon was in practice incapable of leading to the conclusion that he had made such significant progress towards rehabilitation that his continued detention would no longer serve any penological purpose” (§125). In other words, the applicant’s life sentence was not de facto reducible, in breach of Article 3. The mere fact that the punishment imposed on the applicant did not foresee an obligation to undergo treatment, and that he had never made a request for such a treatment did not relieve the respondent State from its obligations concerning the duration of the applicant’s incarceration and the provision of appropriate medical care for his rehabilitation.

In his partly concurring opinion, Judge Pinto de Albuquerque expressed his regrets that the Court decided not to evaluate the review mechanism in Curaçao, neither before November 2011 (when a new law was enacted), nor after this date (PCO, §18). Judge Pinto de Albuquerque stated that the review mechanism currently in force is not satisfactory. First, the review criteria “are not sufficiently determined” (PCO, §19). Second, “the fact that the position of the victims or their relatives is included in the examination of the question whether the continued execution of a life sentence can still be justified confuses the assessment of legitimate penological grounds with an exercise of quenching the victims’ – or their relatives’ – thirst for revenge” (PCO, §19).