Violations: ICCPR art 7, ICCPR art 10(3), ICCPR art 24(1)
[Australia] is under an obligation to provide the authors with an effective remedy, including compensation. [Australia] is also under an obligation to take steps to prevent similar violations in the future. In this connection, [Australia] should review its legislation to ensure its conformity with the requirements of . . . the Covenant without delay, and allow the authors to benefit from the reviewed legislation.
Bronson Blessington and Matthew Elliot were children who committed violent crimes for which they were sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Bronson was a sickly child whose parents separated when he was six. He was violently assaulted by his mother’s new partner. At around the age of 13, he went to live with his father, residing variously in caravan parks, youth refuges and homeless shelters. In this period, he suffered repeated sexual abuse by 2 men. He attended at least 13 different schools, engaged in self-harm and substance abuse. He was diagnosed with ‘severe conduct disorder’ and pleaded diminished responsibility in relation to the crimes in question.
Matthew’s father was persistently violent and abusive towards him. From the age of 13, he was sexually abused by a known paedophile and 2 other men. He developed ‘severe behavioural problems’ resulting in multiple convictions for crimes against property and a ‘great amount of time’ spent in juvenile detention in his early teens. Also diagnosed with ‘conduct disorder’, Matthew was homeless for 3 months prior to the crimes in question.
Bronson and Matthew met while living rough in Sydney in 1988. Together, they committed their first crime of violence, a physical assault on a man. Two days later, on 8 September 1988, together with 2 other homeless children and a ‘mentally retarded’ homeless man, they attempted to abduct a woman in a car park at knife-point, but she escaped. Then they abducted Ms J.B., a 20 year-old bank teller, whom they robbed, raped and finally drowned.
Bronson Blessington and Matthew Elliot were held to be the main perpetrators and, despite being aged 14 and 16 at the time of the attack, were tried as adults for rape and murder. The judge sentenced the boys to life imprisonment and recommended against their ever being released (a view which carries no legal weight, but which would prove influential).
At the time, it was possible for people sentenced to life in prison to apply, after serving 8 years, to have an indeterminate life sentence converted to a sentence of a fixed minimum length, after which they could apply for parole. However, between 1992 and 2006, the NSW parliament made a ‘striking and unusual’ number of changes to the law, including increasing the requirement to 30 years served before a prisoner could apply for a minimum length of sentence. The then Premier of NSW publicly declared he wanted the men ‘cemented in their cells’.
The UN’s Beijing Rules on the administration of juvenile justice state that, for juvenile offenders, ‘just desert and retributive sanctions … should always be outweighed by the interest of safeguarding the well-being and the future of the young person.’ The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Australia ratified in 1990, states that children should never be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of release. Further, ‘the possibility of release should be realistic and regularly considered.’ In 2006, the UN General Assembly called on all countries to legally prohibit life sentences without release for minors. Blessington and Elliot maintain their chances of release are neither realistic nor regularly considered.
The Human Rights Committee found that treating juvenile offenders in a manner ‘appropriate to their age and legal status’ (article 10) precludes definitively concluding that they are ‘incapable of rehabilitation and undeserving of release … for the entire length of a lifetime.’ The Committee found that Blessington and Elliot’s chances of release were ‘merely theoretical’ and ‘extremely remote’. Their cases should be thoroughly reviewed, evaluating the men’s ‘progress towards rehabilitation’ and any justification for continuing their detention, with due regard for the ICCPR and its emphasis on ‘reformation and social rehabilitation’. Australia was reminded that its entire prison system should be geared towards the rehabilitation of prisoners, most especially juvenile prisoners.
Australia is ‘under an obligation to provide the authors with an effective remedy, including compensation … [and] to take steps to prevent similar violations in the future. In this connection, the State party should review its legislation to ensure its conformity with the requirements of article 7, read together with articles 10, paragraph 3 and 24 of the Covenant without delay, and allow the authors to benefit from the reviewed legislation.’
Read the full decision: Blessington & Elliot v Australia (October 2014)