High-profile murderers, including Wayne Couzens, have lodged appeals with the UK’s Court of Appeal against whole-life sentences they are currently serving. Couzens was sentenced in 2021 after pleading guilty to the rape, kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard. Another appellant, Ian Stewart, was found guilty at trial in 2017 for the murder of his fiancee, popular children’s author Helen Bailey and subsequently, in 2022, for the murder of his wife Diane Stewart.
Whole-life sentences are rare in the UK. There are currently only 64 prisoners serving a sentence of this nature. A whole-life sentence differs from a life sentence in that there is no minimum term that must be served before parole can be considered. For whole lifers, parole will only be ever considered in very exceptional circumstances (for example, serious ill health).
The lawfulness of whole-life sentences was challenged in 2012. The Court of Appeal upheld that they do not breach human rights, while cautioning that they should be reserved for only the most exceptionally serious offences.
It is true that whole-life sentences have traditionally been reserved for those murders considered the most heinous, where the level of seriousness is exceptionally high and the offender is aged 21 or over. Examples of cases that would “normally” fall into this category include, but are not limited to, the murder of two or more people or one child, which had a substantial degree of planning, abduction, or sexual or sadistic conduct; political, religious or ideological killings; and the murder of a police or prison officer in the course of their duty.
The killers of Labour MP Jo Cox and Conservative MP David Amess are examples of those also serving whole life sentences. Others to have received these sentences over the years include notorious serial killers Harold Shipman, Rose West and Peter Sutcliffe.
Handing Couzens a whole-life sentence in September 2021, Lord Justice Fulford presented a number of reasons. Couzens, he said, had put a significant degree of planning into the offences. He had put considerable effort into trying to avoid detection. And he had lied to the police for the first few weeks, stating that he was acting under coercion from a Balkan gang.
In his judgement, Lord Justice Fulford referred to the victim, Sarah Everard, as “a wholly blameless victim” and emphasised the impact of her murder on her family and those close to her. He also talked about the impact that his offences had on increasing feelings of insecurity for women living in cities and travelling by themselves at night.
Perhaps of most significance though, was the impact of Couzens’ position as a Metropolitan Police officer. Lord Justice Fulford stated:
I have not the slightest doubt that the defendant used his position as a police officer to coerce her on a wholly false pretext into the car that he had hired for this purpose. It is most likely that he suggested to Sarah Everard that she breached the restrictions on movement that were being enforced during that stage of the pandemic.
The details of this case do not sit clearly within the cases that would usually fall under the remit of a whole-life sentence. Nonetheless, the judge’s rationale was that the case did otherwise meet the criteria both of an exceptionally high level of seriousness and that Couzens had misused his role as a police officer.
Couzens attended court on May 4 2022, by video link from HMP Frankland. His barrister argued that Lord Justice Fulford should have given greater weight in passing sentence to three facts: that Couzens had pleaded guilty; that he had not attempted to claim that sexual intercourse had been consensual or the killing had been accidental; and that there was no basis for stating that Couzens was not remorseful about the offences. Ultimately, Couzens’ barrister argued, there had never before been a whole-life sentence passed for a single murder other than where the victim was a child, a politician, or where it was in the context of a terror attack.
The prosecution, conversely, emphasised the clarity of Lord Justice Fulford’s rationale, restating that this was a horrific set of offences in which a police officer had abused his power. Although it did not fit neatly within the categories in which previous whole-life sentences had been given, these categories were not exhaustive.
It will be some weeks before this case is decided and the five judges return their judgement and reasoning. It will certainly still be the case that Couzens and Stewart will serve many decades of life in prison.
The implications of these appeals for the future use of whole-life sentences is clear. But the appeal also raises points for discussion in relation to women’s safety and freedom. It is interesting to see that, after a long history of men’s violence against women being treated as “less serious” than other types of offending – particularly when the violence is in the context of an relationship – that both of the appeals are of cases of violence against women.
This fits with a move to see domestic violence and sexual abuse as more serious offence types. They are to be included within a new Serious Violence Duty, introduced under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act.
The fact that the sentences are being appealed, however, is perhaps a hangover from an era where these crimes were not taken as seriously.
Importantly, both of the cases in question had offences or alleged offences that predated at least one of the killings: in Couzens’ case, three allegations of indecent exposure, which are yet to go to trial, and in Stewart’s case, the murder of his wife six years before he killed his fiancee.
Challenges in policing domestic and sexual violence persist, as does the disparity in responses to allegations. These appeals should be serve as a stark reminder that much violence against women and girls is preventable rather than inevitable.
Nicole Westmarland is Vice Chair of Darlington and County Durham Rape and Sexual Abuse Counselling Centre.