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How long is a life sentence in the UK?

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If you or a loved one have been given a life sentence, you probably feel that your worst fears have come true. Perhaps you are worrying that you will live out your years in a cell, or that you will not see your children grow up. It may help you to know that whilst a life sentence is, of course, a serious and life altering matter, it does not necessarily mean a whole life behind bars. This article aims to dispel the myths and misconceptions around the term ‘life sentence’. It explores the meaning of a life sentence in England and Wales and what this means in terms of the number of years served behind bars. Note that there is no ‘UK life sentence, as the rules in England and Wales are different to those in Scotland and Northern Ireland, who have their own respective justice systems. It also explores which crimes can result in a life sentence. Finally, it provides information in respect of how you can appeal the Crown Court’s sentencing decision if you feel that the court made an error whilst sentencing you.

What does a life sentence mean in England and Wales?

A life sentence usually means that you have to serve a minimum term in prison, the length of which is decided by the judge when you are found guilty. After you have completed that term, you can be considered for release on parole, also known as early release. The parole board is responsible for deciding whether prisoners serving life sentences can be safely released into the community.

The parole board will perform a risk assessment to decide if the prisoner should still be left in prison, and the type of prison they should be kept in. The parole board consider a dossier of papers about the prisoner. This is mostly information gathered by the prison about their behaviour. This includes reports written by prison and probation staff, reports of staff who have worked with the prisoner, such as a report from the psychologist or the prison chaplain, details of your offence and previous offences, and comments from the judge when you were sentenced. The parole board can then make a preliminary decision based on the papers. The prisoner can decide whether to accept the decision or ask for an oral hearing. The parole board will consider the prisoner’s request for an oral hearing, then decide whether to accept it. The parole board make recommendations, then the Ministry of Justice makes the final decision. More information about the parole process can be found here.

Once you are released on parole, you will be ‘on licence’ for the rest of your life. This means that you will be under the supervision of a probation officer in the community. This will affect where you can live, your employment opportunities, and your ability to travel abroad. If you commit further offences, you can be recalled to prison, which means that you would be remanded in custody again.

The exception to this is if you are given a whole life term. This means that you will spend your entire life in prison. Whole life is reserved for the most serious cases such as serial killers, individuals found guilty of murdering a police officer, politically motivated killings, or the murder of a child involving the abduction of a child.

How many years is a life sentence in England and Wales?

If you commit murder, you will always be given a life sentence. This is known as a ‘mandatory life sentence’. Every year around 300 people are given a mandatory life sentence. When sentencing for murder, the court has to follow the process set out in Schedule 21 of the Sentencing Act 2020.

The first step is to consider whether the defendant should be given a whole life term. A whole life term means that there is no minimum term set by the judge. As explained above, this is reserved for the most serious cases of murder. In 2017, there was believed to be at least 75 prisoners serving whole life sentences in England and Wales. Unlike in the United States, in England and Wales, a whole life term has never been imposed in a case which did not involve murder.

If the case is not suitable for a whole life term, the judge will go on to consider the minimum term that should be imposed. The starting point for this can be 30 years, 25 years, or 15 years depending on the seriousness of the crime. If the individual is under the age of 18, the starting point will be 12 years.

The starting point will then be adjusted for aggravating or mitigating factors. Aggravating factors include a significant degree of planning and premeditation, physical or mental suffering inflicted on the victim before death, and abuse of a position of trust. Mitigating factors include a lack of intention to kill, lack of premeditation, or the fact that the defendant acted to any degree in self-defence or from fear of violence.

If you are given a life sentence, you will serve, on average, 16.5 years in jail. Of course, the specific sentence you are given will depend on the facts of your case. Once you are released from custody, you will spend the remainder of your life on licence.

Why is a life sentence not actually for life?

A life sentence does not mean that you will necessarily spend your whole life behind bars. The only prisoners who will stay in prison indefinitely are those who receive a whole life term, or those whom the parole board considers are unsafe to release back into society. For example, the parole board is unlikely to release prisoners who commit further violent offences whilst they are in prison.

Receiving a life sentence means that even once you have been released from prison custody, you will always remain on licence. Life on licence comes with rules and restrictions. You must follow the conditions of your licence or you may be returned to prison. This is known as recall. A licence comes with standard conditions such as that you must reside at a specified address and not stay elsewhere without prior approval from your supervising officer, not travel outside of the UK without permission of your supervising officer, and not commit any further offences. There may also be specific conditions tailored to your situation, depending on the nature of the case. More information about licence conditions can be found here.

What crimes can you get a life sentence for in England and Wales?

Individuals convicted of murder will always receive a life sentence. You can also receive a life sentence for crimes such as rape and armed robbery. Life sentences can also be imposed where a defendant is assessed to be a ‘dangerous offender’ pursuant to the Sentencing Act 2020, if they have committed one of the following offences:

  • Soliciting murder
  • Wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm
  • Attempting to choke, suffocate or strangle in order to commit or assist in committing an offence
  • Using chloroform or similar to commit or assist in committing any indictable offence
  • Causing bodily harm by explosives, or using explosives with intent to do grievous bodily harm
  • Endangering the safety of rail passengers

In deciding whether to impose a life sentence, the court will consider the information available about the nature and circumstances of the offence and any other offences committed by the offender. It will also take into account any information available about the offender and their patterns of behaviour.

Can you appeal a life sentence?

You can appeal your life sentence. However, before taking steps to do this, you should consult with your criminal defence solicitor to see if you have valid grounds for appeal. There is a risk that if you make an appeal with no merit, the court could decide to add the time that you spent in prison making your appeal to your sentence.

You should contact the legal services officer at your prison. They will help explain how to appeal. Usually, you need to appeal your sentence within 28 days of the sentence being handed down. However, in some circumstances, you may be able to appeal later than this. You should seek the advice of a criminal defence solicitor to find out the time limit applicable to your case. To do this, contact your solicitor to organise an appointment and ask the governor at your prison to organise a legal visit.

If your appeal is turned down, you can ask for the Criminal Cases Review Commission to look at your case. They look at cases where it seems that a mistake may have been made, and can send the case back to the Court of Appeal. Your criminal defence solicitor may be also be able to help you with this application.

Where to get further help

If you or a loved one has received a life sentence and you are considering appealing the sentence, contact Stuart Miller Solicitors today. We will be able to give you realistic advice about whether you have viable grounds of appeal, and start the ball rolling on your appeal if you do. We will go the extra mile to help you get the best possible result. Contact us today for a no-obligation consultation.


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