What is a whole life order and does it mean a criminal will die behind bars?

Homegrown terrorist Ali Harbi Ali joins a string of some of the country’s most dangerous offenders who are expected to spend the rest of their days in jail. Credit: PA/Metropolitan Police/Elizabeth Cook

Terrorist Ali Harbi Ali has been handed a whole-life order for the murder of MP Sir David Amess in October.

The so-called Islamic State fanatic joins a string of some of the country's most disgraced offenders, in including police officer Wayne Couzens, who kidnapped, raped and murdered Sarah Everard last year.

But what exactly is a whole-life order, and how often are they handed out?

What is a whole-life order?

Whole-life orders are the most severe form of punishment available in the UK criminal justice system.

These sentences are very rare - they are only given to those who commit the most serious crimes.

They are typically given to people who commit mass murder. Couzens’ whole-life sentence for the murder of Sarah Everard was the first time the tariff has been imposed for a single murder of an adult which was not committed in the course of a terror attack.

Sarah Everard had been walking home after visiting a friend in Clapham, south London, when she was kidnapped and killed. Credit: Family handout

The order means those given one will never be considered for release and are likely to die behind bars, unless there are exceptional compassionate grounds.

Convicted criminals must be at least 21 to receive a whole-life order.

How many criminals are handed whole-life orders?

Whole-life orders are only made in the most severe cases.

There were just 61 criminals serving whole-life orders at the end of 2021, according to government figures.

People who are sentenced to life in prison without a whole-life order are usually eligible for early release after a minimum term set by a judge.

Which notorious criminals have received whole-life orders?

An infamous face currently serving a whole-life order is the necrophiliac David Fuller.

In December last year, Fuller was handed a whole-life tariff for the murders of Wendy Knell and Caroline Pierce in 1987 and the sexual abuse of more than 100 dead women and girls in hospital mortuaries.

Milly Dowler’s killer, Levi Bellfield, is thought to be the only criminal in UK legal history to be serving two whole-life orders – for her murder, the killings of Marsha McDonnell and Amelie Delagrange as well as the attempted murder of Kate Sheedy.

Milly Dowler was abducted and killed by Bellfield Credit: Surrey Police/PA

Other notorious criminals serving whole-life orders at the moment include:

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Who has died in prison after receiving a whole-life order?

Before they died, Moors murderer Ian Brady and his girlfriend Myra Hindley, Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe, and doctor Harold Shipman, thought to be one of Britain’s most prolific serial killers, were also among those serving whole-life orders.

Are there plans for whole-life orders to be reformed in the future?

In the past, home secretaries could issue whole-life tariffs but these are now determined by judges.

Under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, the government is trying to expand the use of whole-life orders for the premeditated murder of a child.

The reforms would also allow judges to hand out the maximum sentence to 18 to 20-year-olds in exceptional cases, such as for acts of terrorism leading to mass loss of life.

Manchester Arena bomb plotter Hashem Abedi, who was convicted of conspiring with his suicide bomber brother Salman Abedi over the 2017 atrocity, avoided a whole life order because he was 20 at the time.