Law Report: Longer prison sentences for knife killings

LAW REPORT: 12 November 1996
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R v Latham; Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) (Lord Justice Kennedy, Mr Justice McKinnon, Mr Justice Johnson) 5 November 1996

The existing sentencing tariff for offences of manslaughter resulting from the use of a knife, deliberately carried as a weapon in a public place, was too low and should be increased from around seven years to between 10 and 12 years.

The Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) granted an Attorney General's reference under section 36 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 for leave to refer to the court a sentence which he regarded as unduly lenient. The offender was Daniel George Latham, who was sentenced to five years' imprisonment for manslaughter, with three concurrent sentences of 18 months each for unlawful wounding, after pleading guilty to these offences before Mr Justice Wright at Maidstone Crown Court on 18 April 1996.

David Calvert-Smith (CPS HQ) for the Attorney General; William Clegg QC (assigned by the Registrar of Criminal Appeals) for the offender.

Lord Justice Kennedy said the offender, then aged 20, and a friend of his had become involved in a fight with eight other young men in the car park of a night-club in Gillingham, Kent. The offender produced a knife and stabbed four of his opponents. One of them died and the others required hospital treatment.

In interview the offender said he had been attacked and had used a knife in self-defence. He had been carrying a butterfly-knife, the blade of which was almost four inches long. He said he carried it in case he had trouble with others with whom he had previously fought. He said he had "lunged" with the knife but could not explain the injuries to three of the victims' backs.

He was originally indicted for murder and wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, contrary to section 18 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. But after discussion between counsel and with the judge in chambers, pleas were accepted instead of guilty to the lesser offences of manslaughter, on the ground of provocation, and unlawful wounding.

Although prosecuting counsel had not registered any objection to this at the time, the Attorney General was entitled to refer the matter to the Court of Appeal, and that court, if satisfied it would be right to do so, could increase the sentence. The discussion in chambers gave rise to no jurisdictional bar.

The Attorney General submitted that for offences of manslaughter resulting from the deliberate carrying of a knife in a public place with a view to it being used as a weapon by someone who took drink or drugs and then used it so as to cause death, a sentencing tariff had become established which was inappropriate.

In relation to this type of manslaughter, courts in recent years had tended to impose a sentence of about seven years' imprisonment on conviction, and four years on a plea of guilty. The sentence imposed by Wright J in this case was thus entirely in line with the existing tariff, but the Attorney General submitted that that tariff should now be reviewed.

His Lordship rejected the defendant's submission that section 36 of the 1988 Act did not permit the appeal court to increase an existing tariff, since a sentence within the tariff range could not be considered "unduly lenient" so as to entitle the court to interfere. There was nothing in the wording of section 36 to prevent the Attorney General's concluding that a tariff sentence was unduly lenient and it was difficult to see what there was to prevent the appeal court from coming to the same conclusion.

Section 2 of the Offensive Weapons Act 1996 increased to four years the penalty for carrying an offensive weapon without lawful authority or reasonable excuse. That demonstrated that Parliament shared the much publicised public concern about the carrying of knives.

Their Lordships were persuaded that the tariff sentence of seven years on conviction in this type of case was too low. Where an offender went out with a knife, carrying it as a weapon, and used it to cause death, even if there was provocation, he should expect to receive on conviction in a contested case a sentence of 10 to 12 years.

In the circumstances of the present case, however, it would be inappropriate to increase the offender's sentence.

Paul Magrath, Barrister