In the Media

Top judge backs reform of murder laws

PUBLISHED December 6, 2011

The most senior judge in England and Wales backed reform of the ?fiendishly difficult? murder laws today to help improve public confidence and deflect calls to scrap mandatory life sentences.

Lord Judge, the Lord Chief Justice, said that previous proposals to reform the murder laws ?have not been taken forward except piecemeal?, leaving complications which can lead to a ?sense of injustice? in individual cases.

Those complications could, in the long run, leave ?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.?

His comments came as legal experts on the Homicide Review Advisory Group, which includes judges, academics and former QCs, said neither mandatory sentences nor the system for setting minimum terms allow for sentences to match individual cases.

A so-called mercy killing attracts the same mandatory life penalty as serial killings, the group said.

Speaking at the Royal Courts of Justice in central London, Lord 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.?

He went on: ?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.

?The end result may not always seem to John and Jane citizen to be the right result when set against all the other cases of murder.

?I wasn?t suggesting the current law doesn?t embrace people correctly, or does embrace people correctly, I?m just saying it?s extremely complicated as it is.?

Lord Judge added that any discussion around the murder laws was ?highly political?.

?For everyone who says no automatic life imprisonment, there?s another who says capital punishment,? he said.

He added: ?It seems to me, perhaps the real problem is with the law of murder itself.

?It?s particularly difficult and troublesome when more than one person is said to be involved, a joint enterprise murder.

?Who is guilty of murder when four people, three people, surround somebody? The one who kicks, the one who suddenly produces the knife, the offensive weapon that causes the death, the one who eggs on the one who?s got the knife, the one who says to him, ?For God?s sake...?

?It is one thing to be party to punching somebody, quite another to be party to using a potentially lethal weapon on them.?

He added: ?But it?s complicated too by the various defences.

?These are all extremely complicated when they?re put together in the one case.?

The top judge said the Law Commission produced a ?provocative but very interesting? review of the issue more than five years ago, but the then-government failed to act.

?On the main issue which the Law Commission had asked for a public discussion about, whether you should have two degrees of murder, there were no proposals, certainly nothing that got into any subsequent act,? Lord Judge said.

?The reform of murder piecemeal doesn?t actually alter the complications of the law.?