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How Long Is A Life Sentence In The UK?

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In the UK, life sentences can be handed out when someone is convicted of a serious crime. However, what actually constitutes a life sentence can vary from case to case.

Life sentences do not necessarily mean that someone has to spend their entire life in prison, so it’s important to be aware of what the punishment can actually entail and to dispel some of the myths that can cause some confusion.

We discuss life sentences in detail below, including the length of a life sentence in the UK, the maximum term for a life sentence, what crimes could result in a prison life sentence being handed out and whether appealing a life sentence is possible.

What does a life sentence mean?

A ‘life sentence’ is not necessarily a punishment that will see someone behind bars for the remainder of their life. It is instead a punishment that means someone will be required to serve a minimum term in prison, the length of which will be decided by the judge presiding over a case.

Once this minimum term has been served, the parole board will consider release on parole. This decision will be based on whether the person serving the life sentence can be safely released into the community.

After being released on parole, the person will be ‘on license’ for the rest of their life. This can affect where they live, their employment prospects and their ability to travel abroad.

The exception to this is when someone is given a whole life term. This is reserved for the most serious cases (e.g. serial killers, politically motivated killings, murder of a police officer). Offenders on whole life terms do spend their entire life in prison.

There are also other types of life sentences which all have different implications:

  • Mandatory life sentence – The adult sentence for murder including whole of life.
  • Discretionary life sentence ­–The adult sentence for serious offences other than murder.
  • Automatic life sentence – Unless unjust to do so, the sentence for offenders who are 18 or over and have been convicted of a second serious violent or sexual offence where certain criteria has already been met in previous cases such as served 10 years or more.
  • Custody for life – A mandatory sentence for offenders convicted of murder aged 18 or over and under 21 at the time of the offence and sentenced while under 21.
  • Detention for life or detention at her majesty’s pleasure – Equivalent to discretionary life sentence for offenders aged over 10 but under 18 convicted of offences other than murder.

How many years is a life sentence?

The length of a life sentence in the UK will depend on the offence that has been committed, as well as the age of the offender. If a case is not suitable for a whole life term, the minimum life sentence will often start at 15, 20 or 30 years depending on the seriousness of the crime. For offenders under the age of 18, the starting point will typically be 12 years.

Statistics indicate that the average time served for a life sentence in the UK is 16.5 years.

Why is a life sentence not actually for life?

While life sentences do not necessarily mean that someone will be in prison for the rest of their lives, they will not necessarily be ‘walking free’ if they are released on parole at the end of a term. They will be on license, which comes with its own set of restrictions.

What crimes can you get a life sentence for?

The crimes you could potentially receive a life sentence for include:

Can you appeal a life sentence?

It may be possible to appeal a life sentence. However, this is unlikely to ever be a straightforward process and will require the support of an expert criminal defence solicitor.

There is a potential that an appeal to a life sentence that is made without merit would lead to the court deciding to add to the time you spent in prison making the appeal to your sentence.

An appeal to a life sentence will need to be submitted within 28 days of the sentence being handed down.

If an appeal is turned down, it may be possible to ask for the Criminal Cases Review Commission to look at the case.

Credit for a guilty plea

In short, where a guilty plea is indicated at the first stage of proceedings (in the Magistrates’ court), you could receive a reduction from one-third of the sentence for attempted murder.

If the plea is tendered on the first occasion in the Crown court, a discount of 25% can be expected and this reduces incrementally over time to 10% if the plea is tendered on the first day of the trial.

More information regarding the potential outcomes for indicating a guilty plea can be found here.

What should I do if I’m facing a life sentence for a crime?

Facing a life sentence for a crime is, without doubt, an intimidating prospect. Having the strongest possible legal defence to help avoid this possibility is absolutely vital.

At JD Spicer Zeb, our criminal defence solicitors have experience in handling the full spectrum of criminal offences, including those which have the potential to lead to a life sentence. Our knowledge, expertise and proficiency mean that we know exactly what steps need to be taken to compile a robust defence and to help individuals achieve a positive outcome.

We are highly skilled at analysing and presenting the various types of evidence that are used in cases that can lead to life sentences. This often includes forensic evidence, digital evidence and witness testimony. We can quickly identify any flaws in the case presented against you and make sure that any evidence that supports your defence is clearly highlighted.

We have over 45 years of experience in handling criminal law matters and have also been accredited by the Law Society for Criminal Litigation. We have established a strong track record of success, and our experience has helped us to build strong relationships with many of the country’s leading criminal defence barristers.

If you are accused of a criminal offence that could lead to a life sentence, we are here to provide you with the support you need.

Related matters

We also provide support and guidance on various matters that are related to life sentences, including:

Our related cases

Fees and funding

We always provide you with all the information you will need to know about the fees involved in your case.

If you need to attend court in relation to an alleged criminal offence, legal aid public funding may become available. Whether or not this is the case will depend on whether the grant of public funding is justified.

Where you do not qualify for legal aid public funding, the alternative option is to fund the case on a private basis.

To find out more about the way we handle fees (both legal aid public funding and private fees), please use the links provided below:

Contact our criminal defence lawyers today

If you are due to attend the police station, require any urgent specialist advice, or immediate representation for an alleged crime, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

You can contact our dedicated criminal defence lawyers in London, Birmingham, and Manchester by telephone on:

Or email: solicitors@jdspicer.co.uk

Alternatively, you can fill out our quick online enquiry form, and we will get back to you quickly.

24/7 legal representation

Please get in touch for a free consultation with one of our expert criminal defence solicitors, as well as immediate representation and advice.

We are available to represent clients all over England and Wales at any time, so please contact our Emergency Number at 07836 577 556.

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How can we help?

Common questions

We always work with the most experienced and best leading UK barristers, KCs (Kings Counsel). We cover all criminal cases 24/7 at the police station and court. Offices in London, Birmingham, and Manchester cover cases across England and Wales. We can offer Legal Aid and affordable Private fee agreements. We can see you the same day, including virtually. Our Senior Partners supervise all of our cases.

How quickly do you respond?

We respond quickly even during out of hours. We do not get our work by paying for online adverts but based on the fact that few criminal law firms can match our 45 years of experience. Most of our cases are still from word-of-mouth recommendations from satisfied clients. We are called daily by dissatisfied clients from firms with less experience than us. We respond very quickly to new enquiries. We know what clients seek and so we update clients rapidly.

Can you get cases dropped?

Yes, read about the recent cases we've helped our clients with here.

We always keep you updated and give straightforward advice. We will get cases dropped early where the case is weak or should not be prosecuted. We will be upfront with you about where you can benefit from a good result with an early guilty plea, such as a discount on your sentence. As we work on cases across all levels with clients from all walks of life, we are excellent at giving clear, spot-on advice. As an established firm, we can allocate a whole team to your case often at short notice to secure evidence to minimise the damage to you. 

Have you won any awards?


"JD Spicer Zeb demonstrated a clear commitment to client service through their work with vulnerable and diverse individuals in what can be severely traumatic circumstances".

Do you offer free consultations?

Where it is possible, we aim to provide an initial consultation to you. If we can speak to you, we can if required inform you about  –

  • Whether we can take the case on and our relevant experience.
  • Public and private funding benefits.
  • Assistance in applying for legal aid where we are likely to accept instructions.
  • An outline of options in police interview only. We will not advise you on which option to adopt.
  • Providing our free written guide explaining the police station process.
  • The gravity of routine and day-to-day offences you face.
  • Consequences of not attending the court or police station.
  • Consequences of interfering with any witnesses.
  • Retaining any evidence in support of your case.
  • If possible an outline of the elements of the offence that the police or CPS must prove.
  • This consultation will normally be by telephone or email and will only be for as long as we deem necessary to establish if we can act for you. If we cannot usefully give you any advice in this manner then we will not continue with the consultation. We will not discuss the case in depth for you to be able to decide on your plea or any significant aspect of the case, as this cannot be undertaken informally.
  • Referring you, if possible, to other firms for matters out of our specialism or if we cannot help.

Consultations do not apply to the following cases –

  • If we do not intend to take the case on.
  • Road Traffic cases, drink driving, drug driving, driving bans, speeding, no insurance, mobile phone use, points etc.
  • In all cases where we do not have the capacity to take your case or the availability of suitably qualified staff to provide an initial free consultation. This is applicable in all cases but especially where a more senior lawyer is required because of your personal needs or the complexity of the case.
  • Harassment/stalking/ coercive behaviour/malicious communications or road traffic cases and most sensitive cases. These cases are often too complicated to assess in short consultations.
  • The locations concerned may be too distant to represent you adequately or it may not be cost-effective for you or us.
  • The case is too complicated to assess or raises various charges or facts, complexity, or history to be considered informally or in a short consultation.
  • In most Legal aid transfers where legal aid is granted to another firm except in very grave cases, we may assess the case and merits for a transfer.
  • If your relationship has broken down with your existing solicitor or several solicitors.
  • If you have been released under investigation and have already had a police station attendance. 
  • If you hold legal aid with another firm and seek a second opinion.
  • If you are calling on behalf of the client as a friend or family member unless you have full authority and full facts.
  • To businesses.
  • Advising whether you were given good advice by your other solicitor.
  • Whether to decide to plead guilty or not guilty.
  • Whether you have an arguable defence in law or factually complicated defences.
  • Any advice you have had after your first court appearance.
  • Any advice on appeal on conviction or sentence.
  • If we feel we are unable to communicate with you.
  • If we are likely to be conflicted or breach our professional rules.