Howard proposes end to murder loophole

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The Independent Online
Killers will no longer be able to use a 700-year-old law which allows them to escape prosecution for murder if their victims die more than a year and a day after the attack.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, announced yesterday that the present rule which dates from the 1278 Statutes of Gloucester should be abolished because it leads to injustice. Those causing a death can only be convicted of a lesser offence if their victim dies more than 366 days later - which, with the advances of medical science, happens more frequently.

The move is a victory for Pat Gibson, who has campaigned for reform after her son, Michael, died following 16 months on a life-support machine. He was attacked outside a night-club. His assailant was jailed for two years for causing grievous bodily harm.

In another case, Suzanne Calvert, aged 16, died 15 months after she was given pure heroin by Sean O'Brien at a party. When he was sentenced to five years for supplying heroin, the judge told him that he would face more serious charges if she died. However, she died more than a year later, making that impossible.

Lawyers and MPs have argued that the "year and a day" rule is archaic and dangerous in an era when the cause of death, even a prolonged one, is usually determinable and patients can be kept alive indefinitely. Recently the Law Commission and the Home Affairs select committee - backed by Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice, and other senior judges - recommended reform, which will also cover the crimes of manslaughter, aiding and abetting suicide, infanticide and of causing death by dangerous driving.

Announcing the move, Mr Howard said: "Those who cause death should be held responsible for their actions - regardless of the time between the assault and its consequences ... It is no longer difficult to prove a link between an injury and eventual death beyond a year."

However, to allay concerns that injustice may occur the other way because vital evidence is lost after delay or because the attacker may have already spent long periods in custody for a lesser offence, Mr Howard has stated that the Attorney General's consent will be required for two categories of cases.

These come into effect when there has been an interval of three years or more between offence and death and when the assailant has already served a sentence for a lesser charge.

The Government is likely to introduce legislation to amend the homicide law in the autumn.