For someone convicted of murder this is the only sentence that can be passed. It doesn’t matter what the person did, or what part they played in the murder (this will be reflected in the tariff).
The Judge has to set a ‘tariff’ – a minimum period of time that you have to serve before the Parole Board can consider you for release. Whilst some people get out ‘on tariff’ (at the date upon which their tariff expires) this is very, very rare and in practice most people serve a lot longer than that before they are released.
In working out the tariff, there are four ‘starting points’ depending on the type of murder (these are set out in Sch 21). The Judge is not bound by these, and even if a case falls within one of the categories, then the Judge can still set any tariff he wishes. The starting points apply to offenders aged 18 or over at the time of the offence (with the exception of whole life, which can only be imposed where the offender was aged 21 or over at the time of the offence). For those under 18 at the time of the offence, the starting point will be 12 years.
‘Whole Life’ – this is an order where no tariff is set – due to the nature of the offence, or the person convicted, the Judge directs that they can never be released. This is very rare (there are only about 55 people serving this currently). Cases that ‘normally fall into this category’ (as the Act describes them) are:
- the murder of a child if involving the abduction of the child or sexual or sadistic motivation,
- a murder done for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause, or
- a murder by an offender previously convicted of murder.
The murder of two or more persons, where each murder involves any of the following—
- a substantial degree of premeditation or planning,
- the abduction of the victim, or
- sexual or sadistic conduct,
‘30 years’ – murders in the following categories:
- the murder of a police officer or prison officer in the course of his duty,
- a murder involving the use of a firearm or explosive,
- a murder done for gain (such as a murder done in the course or furtherance of robbery or burglary, done for payment or done in the expectation of gain as a result of the death),
- a murder intended to obstruct or interfere with the course of justice,
- a murder involving sexual or sadistic conduct,
- the murder of two or more persons,
- a murder that is racially or religiously aggravated or aggravated by sexual orientation, or
- a murder that would have a whole life tariff, but where the murderer was aged under 21 when he committed the offence.
‘25 years’ – if the murder was committed by a knife or other weapon that was taken to the murder site intending to commit ANY offence (not just the murder) or to have it available as a weapon.
‘15 years’ – all other cases.
Unusually, the law also sets out further factors that aggravate or mitigate the offence:
Aggravating factors include—
(a) a significant degree of planning or premeditation,
(b) the fact that the victim was particularly vulnerable because of age or disability,
(c) mental or physical suffering inflicted on the victim before death,
(d) the abuse of a position of trust,
(e) the use of duress or threats against another person to facilitate the commission of the offence,
(f) the fact that the victim was providing a public service or performing a public duty, and
(g) concealment, destruction or dismemberment of the body.
Mitigating factors include—
(a) an intention to cause serious bodily harm rather than to kill,
(b) lack of premeditation,
(c) the fact that the offender suffered from any mental disorder or mental disability which (although not falling within section 2(1) of the Homicide Act 1957 (c. 11)), lowered his degree of culpability,
(d) the fact that the offender was provoked (for example, by prolonged stress),
(e) the fact that the offender acted to any extent in self-defence (or in fear of violence),
(f) a belief by the offender that the murder was an act of mercy, and
(g) the age of the offender
Guidance on how a Judge should approach the sentencing task is given in the case of Jones  EWCA Crim 3115.
If someone is convicted of Attempted Murder, or Conspiracy to Murder, then, whilst a Judge can impose a life sentence, they don’t have to.