Lord Judge says the law leaves some with a sense of injustice after a report criticises mandatory life sentences for murder
MPs should be given a free vote on reform of the murder laws, the lord chief justice has urged in response to calls for an end to mandatory life sentences for the offence.
Conceding that the law was "fiendishly difficult" and that some people were left with a sense of injustice, Lord Judge said that a review of the legislation might reduce demands for automatic sentences to be scrapped.
His comments were made in the wake of a report by the Homicide Review Advisory Group, which included judges, academics and former QCs, that warned that neither mandatory sentences nor the system for setting minimum terms were acceptable. So-called mercy killings, the study noted, attract the same mandatory life penalty as serial killings.
Speaking at the Royal Courts of Justice in central London, Judge said: "If the whole law of murder were looked at, that might very well address the question of whether or not those who are asking for the automatic sentence to be removed would have their biggest concerns allayed.
"What I would like, first of all, is the law must keep in step with public opinion. There has to be a balance between the law we have and what the public regards as an appropriate law.
"The second is, I would like, if the matter ever got to parliament, for it to be dealt with by way of a free vote so that members of parliament could vote in accordance with their consciences. That's a wish.
"It's sometimes felt that the complications leave, in the long run, a sense of injustice about how an individual case is fitted into the framework overall.
"I would have thought myself that a careful reform, or consideration of reform of the law of murder, might reduce the call for the automatic sentence to be removed."
He added: "I'm not actually expressing a view either way whether more people should be caught or fewer people should be caught. What I'm saying is it's fiendishly difficult.
"For everyone who says no automatic life imprisonment, there's another who says capital punishment," he said.
In its report, the Homicide Review Advisory Group called for sentencing for murder to become discretionary. The indefinite and misleading nature of life sentences, it said, was both unjust and incomprehensible ? some resulting in a life behind bars, and others not.
The mandatory life sentence replaced the death penalty in 1965. The group said it had been brought in as a compromise to ensure the abolition of the death penalty made its way through both Houses of Parliament.
The starting point for a minimum term to be served for less serious murders is 15 years. Having served their term, offenders are released on life licence, but can be recalled to prison at any time if they breach its terms.
The time has come, the report said, to move to fixed sentences for murder so that the exact circumstances of offences can be properly reflected by the courts. The report comes after research published last October showed there was no evidence of widespread support for mandatory life sentences for murder. Fewer than one person in five believed that sentencing cases of murder was "about right", the study found.
The report authors and law professors Barry Mitchell and Julian Roberts said serious consideration should be given to using mandatory life sentences for "particularly serious cases" only.
Mitchell, from Coventry University, and Oxford University's Roberts said they wanted to test the assumption that anything less than automatic indefinite jail terms would undermine public confidence in the criminal justice system.
Their study, funded by the charity the Nuffield Foundation, found that the public had limited understanding of how convicted murderers were sentenced.
In particular, the vast majority of people wrongly assumed the murder rate in England and Wales had increased over the past decade, when it had actually begun to decline.
And a big proportion of those surveyed underestimated the length of time that most murderers spend in prison before being released on life licence.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: "We have no plans to abolish the mandatory life sentence for murder. The most serious crimes deserve the most serious sentences."