Changes urged to law covering manslaughter

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The Independent Online
CHANGES in the way drivers and companies that kill are prosecuted are called for by the Law Commission in a consultation paper published today.

The commission says the law on manslaughter is subject to 'confusion and uncertainty' because of the piecemeal way it has developed in recent years.

Recent cases which have prompted public outcry include that of a shoplifter who was jailed for five years for kicking to death a man who tried to arrest him. The Attorney-General will disclose today whether he is referring the case to the Court of Appeal as an unduly lenient sentence.

Two types of manslaughter offences to replace the present single offence and the abolition of the maximum life sentence are also proposed by the commission to distinguish between severity of offences.

Mr Justice Brooke, the chairman of the commission, which makes recommendations to the Government on changes in the law, said the state of the law was failing to send a clear message to the public.

'The same word, 'manslaughter', covers death caused by accidents which lead to the making of a probation order and those caused by seriously reckless acts which lead to an order for life imprisonment. No wonder the public is confused,' he said. 'The commission is seeking to straighten out the law and make it clear, relevant and easy to understand.'

The commission is seeking the views of the public on its proposals. They do not cover cases where someone charged with murder has the offence reduced to manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility.

The intention, the commission said, was to distinguish between deaths which arise out of unlawful acts, such as violence, in which the perpetrator knows that their actions carry the risk of death or serious injury, and cases where the person is unaware of what they are doing, but that any objective bystander would say their actions do carry risk of death or injury.

The latter cases would cover those where, for instance, a doctor kills a patient through negligence and would be covered by a new offence of negligent manslaughter, carrying a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment.

An offence of manslaughter by subjective recklessness, which retains the current maximum of life, would be the charge in more serious cases.

Very few motorists are prosecuted for manslaughter because the law requires that the Crown has to prove that the person knew he or she was taking a risk.

The commission proposes abandoning the offence altogether, leaving such cases to be prosecuted as causing death by dangerous driving or as subjective reckless manslaughter.

Most corporate manslaughter prosecutions fail because of the requirement to find a person who can be identified as being responsible. The commission says this is wrong and it proposes that the law could apply to companies in their own right.