European judges have ruled that life can never mean life, as removing the chance of release for even the most dangerous offenders is a breach of human rights.
Murderers Jeremy Bamber, Douglas Vinter and Peter Moore have been told by the European Court of Human Rights that their whole life sentences amount to "inhuman and degrading treatment".
Whole-lifers should be entitled to a review of their sentence 25 years into their term at the very latest, the Grand Chamber of the Strasbourg-based court said.
The ruling by 17 judges from across Europe sparked further outrage among critics of the court - despite reassurances that the decision did not amount to grounds for imminent release.
Douglas Carswell, a Conservative MP who campaigns for Britain to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, said: "A case like this illustrates that there is something profoundly rotten about the way this country is run and we can only make it right by taking power away from these so-called judges."
The European court found that for a life sentence to remain compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights there had to be both a possibility of release and a possibility of review. However, the panel of 17 judges added: "In finding a violation in this case, however, the court did not intend to give the applicants any prospect of imminent release."
The appeal was brought by Vinter, who stabbed his wife in February 2008, and means the cases of Bamber, who killed his parents, sister and her two young children in August 1985, and Peter Moore, who killed four gay men for his sexual gratification in 1995, will also be considered.
In their ruling, the judges said it was up to the national authorities to decide when such a review should take place. However, existing legal comparisons gave support to guaranteeing a review no later than 25 years after the imposition of a life sentence.
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said: "The British people will find this ruling intensely frustrating and hard to understand. What the court is saying is that a judge can no longer tell the most appalling criminals that they will never be released. I think the people who wrote the original Human Rights Convention would be turning in their graves at this ruling. I profoundly disagree with the court and this simply reinforces my determination to curtail the role of the Court of Human Rights in the UK."
Downing Street said that David Cameron was ''very, very disappointed'' at the ruling. The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "He profoundly disagrees with the court's ruling. He is a strong supporter of whole life tariffs."